School’s Open! Cartoons

Yep, it’s that time of year for buying school supplies, getting up early, and returning to school. Parents, children, principals, and teachers are preparing for that glorious first day of school. Here are some cartoonists’ jabs at the annual ritual of returning to school. Enjoy!

 

cache_600_400_0_50_60_16777215_backtoschool.jpg

 

School-Pictures-2018-HP-500.jpg

 

 

 

1440473323.png

 

5e9144adf399dd081e808450f43a2096.jpg

 

8221d03ab75a27cf06f18fbef75c0184--teacher-tips-teacher-humor.jpg

 

5b6e3eec591f6.image.jpg

 

1-z26meHxLbXPvCvgjSIjfrA.jpeg

 

FellP20150806_low.jpg

 

backfun.jpg

 

images.jpg

 

32121b2199a0c77da98ad88115b03d9f.gif

 

back-to-school-countdown.png

 

214372.png

 

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

One Way or Two-Way Traffic? The Policy to Practice Street

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again” if you wish) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With federal legislation of No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015-) teaching has been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.) in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students.

The same pattern of policy aimed at standardizing practice in special education classrooms in the 1980s had teachers adapting lessons to the students they had, the contexts in which they were teaching thus producing much variation in lessons. Called “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers, social workers, police officers have an inherent discretion in dealing with clients, students, and citizens which they use daily leading to constant adapting of policy mandates. Professionals using discretion means they end up fitting the policy to the setting and the people.

Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher expertise and judgment are crucial ingredients to student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

9 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

Bread Crumbs and School Reform

In  the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, the Grimm brothers’ version had the children taken into the forest by their step-mother during a famine to rid the starving family of two mouths to feed. Attracted to a sweet-smelling gingerbread cottage, Hansel and Gretel find a hungry evil Witch who puts the two in cages to fatten them up for a meal. But the quick-witted boy and girl get out of the cages and toss the witch into a boiling pot of water, take the gold that she had collected from other travelers and escape. They follow a trail of bread crumbs they had strewn in the forest earlier to find their way home. They discover that their step-mother had died and the family, now wealthy, is re-united and live happily ever after.

OK, Larry, I get the fairy tale but what’s the connection to school reform? The bread crumbs. Yes, it is a stretch but stick with me.

The bread crumbs were markers guiding the lost boy and girl out of the forest. There are large historical markers along the often trod trail of school improvement that the current generation of wannabe reformers, should they be as wise as Hansel and Gretel, might heed and avoid repeating the errors of earlier generations. Except this time instead of minute bread crumbs, let’s talk about large croutons that even myopic reformers could see on the zig-zag path to improving teaching, learning, and student performance in tax-supported public schools.

stack-crispy-rye-crouton-bread-600w-1055386802.jpg

Crouton markers for changing how teachers teach daily lessons

Time and again, policymakers, civic and business leaders have glommed onto a better way for teachers to teach reading, math, history, science, and foreign language. From phonics to integrated math to new science standards, instructionally-driven reformers have mandated teachers (if not ordered to teach new curricula then strongly urged) to alter traditional ways of teaching these subjects and adopt the innovative (and better) way.  In most cases, teachers adapted the innovation to fit the familiar ways they had taught to the students they had in front of them.

The repeated mistake these reformers made was to conceptualize, adopt, and require changes without involving teachers in the decision. Rather than directly involving teachers in the decisions to adopt curricular and instructional innovations (beyond a token representation)—think the New Math, interactive whiteboards, “personalized learning”– they made top-down decisions. In the name of speed and efficiency, they said.

Slower and more efficient over time would have been directly involving teachers in the decision process and increasing their expertise and building capacities to teach in different ways. State and local school decision-makers think (and thought) that public schools are (and were) command-and-control organizations. Adopt policies that tell teachers what to do and they will do it. Didn’t happen. The more top-down decision-making for teacher lessons, the more variation.

Crouton markers for changing  school organization

The historic lure of altering how schools are organized in order to improve how teachers teach and what students learn has driven policymakers, administrators, and political leaders to adopt such reforms as the elementary school comprised of eight grades in the mid-19th century to the junior high school and comprehensive high school in the 1920s and 1930s to the middle school in the 1960s and small high schools in the 1990s.  Looking across the nation’s 13,000-plus school districts, periodic efforts to reorganize schools from K-5 to K-8 elementary school from grades 7-9 junior high schools to 6th to 8th grade middle schools and four year high schools to six year secondary schools occurred time and again. The idea that reorganizing the grades of the age-graded high school would lead to better teacher and student performance has been a fool’s errand that reformers have pursued over and over (see here and here)

Crouton markers for governing tax-supported public schools

Past and present reformers among educators, civic, and business leaders have argued again and again if only schools were governed differently, teachers would teach well and students would learn more, faster, and better. So there have been continual struggles over whether local school boards–those 13,000-plus districts–should be elected or appointed (or done away with completely). Super-heated rhetoric about improved school board governance (or abolition thereof) leading to leaner, more efficient ways of schooling children and youth has no basis in factual evidence yet persists in 2019 (see here and here).

Getting rid of school boards, mostly in cities, and replacing them with mayoral control has grabbed policymakers’ attention since the 1990s. Big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago  made their public schools another department of the mayor’s cabinet.  Since adoption, increased efficiencies in teaching, learning, and improved student performance has continued to dance just beyond reformers’ outstretched hands (see here; one study , however, does show positive effects but a review of the study questions its findings).

For Hansel and Gretel, there was a happy ending to the fairy tale. The children were reunited with their father–the stepmother had departed. But school reform is not a fairy tale. There are real consequences for children, teachers, parents and communities when reformers chase the next new curriculum, instructional innovation, reorganization, and nifty governance scheme. There are large historical markers, not bread crumbs, but croutons, that can guide reformers along a path that is slower but truer should they be wise enough to heed.

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Driver Education?

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Corporate managers outsourced manufacturing jobs such as in steel and services such as call centers. School districts did the same with  driver education. Higher graduation requirements and reforms that called for everyone to go to college combined to inexorable demands for reducing costs led states to cut their subsidies for  driver education teachers and programs. Far more private companies now provide driver training to teenagers than schools do.

What Problems Did the Driver Education Intend To Solve?

Traffic accidents and fatalities is the  short answer. From the very beginning of the 20th century, cars killed pedestrians and passengers. By the 1920s, over 15,000 Americans died in auto accidents. Like most economic, political, and social problems in the nation, Americans believed that education–like water, alcohol, and acetone–is an all-purpose solvent. So with more cars on the road, more accidents, policymakers turned to schools. With states funding parts of these programs, district after district offered driver education to prepare the young to be better drivers and thereby reduce road carnage. In teaching teenagers about how the car works, rules of the road, and giving them actual practice on streets and highways, teenagers getting state-issued driver licenses would be better drivers and accidents and fatalities would decrease. Especially as 20th century statistics on car accidents and deaths showed increasing  percentages of teenagers involved in fatal accidents. That was the theory.

Driver education, then, is another instance of turning to schools to solve social problems by educating the next generation (rather than attack the actual problem directly, i.e., building safer cars and road design). Or, in the word that historian of education David Labaree coined, Americans have a habit of “educationalizing” national problems.

The first high school driver education course was taught by Amos Neyhart, a professor of engineering, at Penn State in 1934. amos-neyhart-gives-instruction-in-1929-graham-paige-829-480x350.jpg

 

Usually, a car held the teacher on the passenger side, student driver, and 2-3 student observers in back seat. As driver education courses multiplied across the nation, cars with dual controls became common.

amos-neyhart-drivers-ed-dual-control-pontiac-master-6-480x311.jpg

As did other ways of simulating driving.

file-20170417212443_Early_Drivers_Education.jpg

 

By 1965, over 13,000 schools offered driver education for over 1.7 million students. After  A Nation at Risk report came out in 1983, states ratcheted up their curriculum standards, graduation requirements and tests. College prep courses crowded the curriculum leaving little space for electives such as driver education. The number of driver education teachers and courses plummeted and the number of private companies offering courses and preparation for getting the actual driver’s license soared. Because parents had to pay extra to get their teenage sons and daughters taught how to drive, the number of teenagers getting licenses also dropped, many getting the valuable piece of paper  after they turned 18.

What Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Look Like in Practice?

In most instances, students had to be 16 years old. They had classroom lessons about how cars work, road safety, and the rules that govern state licensing including the written and road tests. Behind-the-wheel experience ofdriving a car on streets and highways usually occurred during and after the school day under the supervision of a certified teacher in driver education.

Many teenagers now pay for online courses to prepare for the written test and then get actual road practice through a company. Costs vary from $250 to $500. Because of the outsourcing of driver education, there is much variation in what private vendors offer.

Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said that cutbacks [in driver education] had spawned “faster, cheaper, but not necessarily better programs.” Online programs, which are available in 15 states, he said, “are virtually unregulated.”

Occasionally, districts will ante up the money to offer such a course. But that is rare. Consider the Bellingham (WA) district.

After the state of Washington ended subsidies for driver education in 2002, parents bore the cost of their teenagers wanting a state-issued driver’s license. Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker,  however, found the money in the district budget to restore the elective. He wrote parents:

This new semester-long class will allow students to take the Driver’s Safety Education course during the school day and experience the driver training portion after school and weekends. Part of the class will focus on personal finance and cover topics directly related to the details of purchasing and owning an automobile. Topics will include financial decision making, money management, spending and saving, investing, risk management and insurance.

When districts do offer the course, parents pay extra. In the Granite School District in Utah, parents pay a fee of $140 ($215 for out-of-district students) for a driver’s ed course. For that fee, the district:

… will provide the 6 hours of behind the wheel training as follows:

  • Driving Range – 3 hours
  • Skid Car- 20 minutes
  • On the Road Driving-2 hours, 40 minutes

Driving range and skid car training will take place during the school day. Instruction will be provided by certified retirees and hourly employees. Some on-the-road driving will take place during school, but the majority of driving will be after school. The department chairperson at each school will schedule driving times for students.

Tests

Each student must pass the driver education class.  Each student must pass at 80% or better on the following tests:

State written test

State driving test

Fees and Permits:

Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Work?

The outcome sought for driver education and the rationale for introducing it in schools is that those taught to drive through driver education courses would have fewer traffic accidents and deaths. At best there would be a positive correlation between those students trained in schools and the number of accidents and fatalities. Some research studies say it did and, you guessed it, some say it did not. Whether such training will reduce accidents and deaths remains unclear. See here, here, here, and here.

What state-subsidized courses have done since they were introduced before and after World War II is increase the numbers of teenagers who qualified for state driver licenses. Whether such training “worked” in reducing accidents and deaths remains uncertain.

What Has Happened to Driver Education Programs in Schools?

They’re mostly gone. Collateral damage from the curricular embrace of college for all, over the past three decades, schools dropped driver education and private companies have stepped into the burgeoning market for teenagers seeking to take and pass paper and road tests to get the state-issued license to drive.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies

A Gift That Never Stops Giving–Being a Teacher*

I wrote this post five years ago and re-post it now as both children and youth get prepared for the next school year. And teachers –both rookies and veterans–gear up for 2019-2020.

A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

________________________________________________

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching

Leave a comment

Filed under how teachers teach

How Do Teachers Teach–Then and Now

Most policymakers, researchers, and parents believe that good teachers and teaching are the keys to school improvement yet these very same folks know little about how teachers teach daily. And that is the rub. Good teachers and teaching are the agreed-upon policy solutions to both high- and low-performing students yet reliable knowledge of how most teachers teach and what are the best ways of teaching in either affluent or low-income, minority schools are absent among policymakers, researchers, and parents.

How do most teachers teach?

The short answer is that teachers draw from two traditions of teaching.

From the early 19th century, teacher-centered and student-centered traditions have dominated classroom instruction. The teacher-centered tradition refers to teachers controlling what is taught, when, and under what conditions. Were you to sit for a few minutes in such a classroom you would note that the furniture is usually arranged in rows of desks or chairs facing the front whiteboard, teachers talk far more than students, the entire class is most often taught as one group with occasional small groups and independent work, and students regularly use texts to guide their daily work. Scholars have traced the origins of this pedagogical tradition to the ancient Greeks and religious schools centuries ago and have called it by various names: “subject-centered,” “teaching as transmission,” and “direct instruction.”

The student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a substantial degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding. Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and “constructivist.”

Champions of each tradition believe that all students, regardless of background, grasp subject matter, acquire skills, cultivate attitudes, and develop behaviors best through its practices. Yet the accumulated evidence of actual classroom practices producing desired student outcomes for each tradition has been both mixed and unconvincing. And for good reason. Most observers confuse “good” teaching with “successful” teaching. Moreover, researchers have yet to link ways of teaching to student test performance because so many variables influence achievement such as family background, teacher experience, peers, school safety, and dozens of other factors including, yes, pedagogy.

Lacking evidence to support one form of teaching over another, faith–not facts–has driven proponents of each tradition. Fierce rhetorical struggles over which ways of teaching and learning are best for all or some students—often mirroring larger conservative vs. liberal ideological battles over religion in schools, ending poverty, child-rearing practices, and song lyrics–have ebbed and flowed.

Since the early 20th century, these so-called “culture wars” spilled over newspapers, books, educational conferences, and scholarly journals. More recently, outbreaks of these media-amplified fistfights—again reflecting the ideological divide between political conservatives and liberals have engaged federal, state, and local officials in arguments on over how best to teach reading, math, science, and history. In 2003, for example, New York City Chancellor of schools Joel Klein mandated “Balanced Literacy”—a progressive whole language approach–as the preferred way of teaching children to read in nearly 750 elementary schools rather than a phonics-based approach.

And in the “math wars” between progressives and conservatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a report in 2006 urging that math teaching in elementary and middle school concentrate on knowing multiplication tables, how to do division and manage decimals. Yet their 1989 report called for engaging students in learning concepts and applying them to real world situations rather than memorizing rules for adding, subtracting, and dividing and other familiar ways of grasping mathematics. And that struggle continues into 2020.

These historic traditions of teaching practices, then, are alive and well now. Yet these media-hyped “wars” between progressive and traditional ways of teaching have obscured the mixing of traditions. For instance, in the past quarter-century, state standards in math in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia include both traditional and progressive language to describe teaching. Current math textbooks (e.g., University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) blend traditional practices (e.g., whole class drill on math facts) with progressive ones (e.g., connections between math and science, students working in small groups, writing in journals). Ditto for reading and, yes, the use of technology in classroom lessons. Note well the progressive language surrounding “personalized learning.”

My research into teaching over the past century and particularly in classrooms over the past decade that I have directly observed, most teachers have, indeed, blended both traditions of teaching.

5 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Tenth Anniversary of Blog

Hard to believe that I began this blog in 2009. I have enjoyed writing about school reform and classroom practice because both have consequences, anticipated and unanticipated for children, teachers, parents, citizens, and society. I also look forward to writing more posts during my eleventh year because I know that there are a lot of fiercely smart practitioners, policymakers, parents, academics and graduate students out there who read them. They think about what I write, agree or disagree with the points I make, and on occasion, take the time to comment. For those readers, I thank you.

As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in August 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. After 10 years, I tip my hat to her.

***************************************

From time to time readers and friends will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters.

So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my six decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my in-school experiences and as a site-based researcher. I prize both experience- and research-produced knowledge. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Although public schools are essentially conservative institutions committed to reinforce and pass on sanctioned knowledge and community values, they do change and have done so for decades. Schools are not fossils preserved in amber. Both change and stability mark the history of tax-supported public schools. They are “dynamically conservative” institutions that embrace change to maintain stability.

Change comes from both outside and inside schooling. Basically, public schools are political institutions totally dependent upon taxpayers and voters and therefore vulnerable to social and economic gusts of reform that blow across the nation. Those winds of reform, however, lose force as they settle into these conservative institutions. Administrators and teachers adapt organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional reforms and alter them as they move across districts, schools, and classrooms.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reform-driven policymakers, donors, and researchers who try to alter the how and what of teaching. “Deep learning,” Common Core State Standards, adding Computer Science and coding to the curriculum, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar  inventions spill forth from donors and policymakers. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction, “personalized learning”) regardless of context, I am skeptical of such initiatives.

Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to dramatically alter how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or medical practice, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the age-graded school settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and what they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities and the discretion that teachers exercise even within the constraints of the age=graded school are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., influences what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this “grammar of schooling” in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons in separate classrooms covering chunks of the required curriculum for that grade or subject. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended by designers. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers regularly do daily. I include new content and ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century and the current “deep learning.” Where and when there have been deep changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering dramatically classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes using their existing expertise and expanding their knowledge and skills. 

These are the main principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. Using these principles permit me to sort through and make sense of reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.

So thank you, readers, for joining or sticking with me over the past decade.

Larry Cuban

 

 

 

 

 

21 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized