Admitting Error Is Very Hard To Do: Structures and Classroom Practice

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006), presided over decades of economic prosperity and recession believing that a market-based economy needed little government regulation. When “irrational exuberance” occurred, the structure of market forces would correct economic bubbles, he and gazillions of economists believed. Not so for the Great Recession of 2008. Triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle, the international banking, credit, and financial institutions froze losing trillions of dollars of wealth in the blink of an eye.

Greenspan testified before a U.S. Congressional committee and admitted that he had erred in believing that self-correcting market structures and federal regulations were enough to avert a major recession. That kind of after-the-fact admission of error is rare among economists and educational reformers.

I have a far less dramatic and consequential mistake to confess. As an ardent public school reformer in classrooms, schools, and districts, I believed that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new district and school site governance structures; novel technologies; small high schools) would lead to better classroom instruction. After teaching for nearly 15 years, I had concluded that such new structures would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better. That was my theory of action for many years. I erred.

I slowly began to revise that belief as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices. Then after I left the classroom and began researching how teachers have taught in the early 20th century and, later, during the standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century, I, like others, grew skeptical of the power of structures to change teaching practices.

Still, the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures. Why? Because reform-driven policymakers concern themselves with scale. Changing one child at a time, changing one teacher at a time, changing one school at a time is incredibly inefficient use of limited resources. Changing many students, teachers, and schools introduces economies of scale and efficiencies. Policymakers marry the creation of structures to scaled-up reforms that, they believe, will alter traditional classroom practices. In the DNA of policymakers, this belief in structures causing classroom changes is especially salient now when a shower of research studies from value-added assessments to twins in different classrooms reaffirm the importance of teacher knowledge, skills, and experience in shaping students’ academic achievement and behavior. The prevalent belief is that correct structures will steer changes in classroom practice.

So when policymakers advocate portfolios of schools in urban districts, national core standards, small high schools, deploying 1:1 laptops, and other structural changes they believe in their heart of hearts that these structures will work. Moreover, such scaled-up changes are visible to both patrons and participants, evoking images of muscular reform with potential payoff in votes and longer tenure in office.

Because current policymakers believe that visible structures will eventually revamp classroom practice, they tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running the schools (e.g., New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago,and Boston). Federal and state policymakers champion new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for raising students’ test scores. Denver, Washington, D.C. and other cities have negotiated contracts with unions to install these new salary structures. And, of course, policymakers beat the drums loudly for new structures to expand the supply of schools (e.g., charters and magnets) from which parents can choose. They point to New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles as stellar examples of districts with portfolios of choice among schools.

Entrepreneurial policymakers believe that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their practice and, thereby, improving student achievement. Yet my research and that of others deny the genetic links between popular policymaker-driven structures and teaching practice.

Like others, who have seen structural reforms come and go, I have concluded from my experience and research that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, knowledge, and skills at the school and classroom levels—not big-ticket structural changes—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Of course, this is slow-motion Mom-and-Pop-store-one-school-at-a-time work that policymakers, eager for supermarket models and swift implementation, find hard to swallow when across-the-board reform is their gold standard.

Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to focusing on school and classroom practices one school at a time, however, will be most difficult, even when policies fail and when studies contradict policymakers’ beliefs. Besides, there there has been a long history of such results being ignored. Yes, it is very hard to admit error.

Alan Greenspan’s public confession of error—he admitted that he rejected those economists’ warnings of the dangerous housing bubble–remains uncommon. Few national and state educational policymakers have either questioned their unvarnished enthusiasm for current or past structures or admitted that they were mistaken.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

7 responses to “Admitting Error Is Very Hard To Do: Structures and Classroom Practice

  1. As you have noted, change is hard. Most folks will not change behaviors even if their lives depend on it. Is there any role for structural reform in creating an environment where working on teacher norms, knowledge, and skills is more likely to result in changed teacher behavior leading to increased student learning? If so, which reforms would you suggest are most likely to be necessary if not sufficient elements of a succesful improvement approach?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Dave, I do believe that some structures provide the scaffolding for work on teacher norms, knowledge, and skills. Consider those districts that establish “professional learning communities” of principals and teachers across the system and within schools that focus on instruction and assessment. Or consider those districts (and even individual schools without direction from the district) that put into place a system where principals and teachers create, monitor, and assess frequently their instructional plans. I could go on but you get the picture. As you and I know, however, these structures would be necessary to begin the work but are hardly sufficient to complete the task without leadership, resources, and constant attention.

      • So would measuring the impact of individual teachers on student learning be necessary for working on the impact of teachers on student learning? Or, to ask the same question slightly differently, for current standardized tests in use in states where you have some knowledge, do improvements in teaching cause increases in value-added effects for the teacher?

        My judgment would be that in the situation with which I am most familiar (Tennessee), the end-of-year test does a pretty fair job of assessing learning. Further, my observation (and one backed up by the data), is that good teachers (as judged by most principals and parents), get good value-added results. So, working on teacher norms, knowledge, and skills should improve learning, that improvement should be reflected in the aggregate scores of multiple years of the teachers’ students, and thus value-added scores would go up. So, one could manage the work on norms, knowledge, and skills by measuring value-added. Yes?

  2. Mike Sacken

    One thing about changing behaviors and norms at street level is so often we are changing the lives of teachers. As “we teach who we are,” an oft-quoted Palmer observation, to change practice in a significant or even fundamental way is more or less equivalent to changing our self thusly. And changing school norms is very hard work too.

    Moreover, when we work at the level of individuals, the complexities of their lives enter in, as teachers always argue re their kids. Data are ever so much less multi-faceted and complex. We have a lot of rear echelon officers out there and not so many 2d Lts, much less master sergeants on the lines.

    I know we need both types w/in the system, but a lot of folks want to be heroes w/out worrying over the messiness and pain of classroom life.

    Enjoy your blog, as I have all your books. Thnx.

  3. To me it seems that a structure is never more solid than it’s weakest point. For a structure to work all the levels down to the classroom have to work together. And for reasons you point out, that is not very easily accomplished. We have all different reasons for thinking what we do are the most appropriate.

    And further, it seems that policymakers mistake structures for something that just can be “applied”. (Like applied science, you just apply it. I actually got that point from a Larry Cuban-speech some years back.) I’m thinking that a good structure has room for a professional teacher to make well-funded decisions, and that means we have to live with not everyone doing things in the same way.

    And besides, I think that structural change has to be made relevant for the teachers involved. That might be the biggest challenge, because in this process the policymakers – to some extent – have to interact with the teachers that are going to do the job. I see that the process of implementing the structure is less effective this way, but the structure itself might be.

  4. John Patten

    Great post! Seems to me that in order to accomplish the “mom & pop – one school at a time” you describe, a structure would be needed to afford the amount of time and energy to be successful. You describe the development of a PLC but that PLC would have to be within a structure. …I suppose dedicating time that is ongoing for that purpose is really not a structure though and more of a necessity…at least in how your post is describing structures.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Mike Sacken

    I dug up a quote I kept from one of LCuban’s books:

    *Larry Cuban wrote about his experience as a student of James March, a professor at Stanford: “From March I learned the importance of looking at the world in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity and conflict are part of the natural terrain of organizational life.”

    Structural antidotes and aspirations are integral to that tenacious rationalism and fear/distaste re ambiguity, yes?

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