Teacher Resistance and Reform Failure

In the midst of both teach praise and teacher bashing nowadays abides a nagging but persistent assumption among state and federal policymakers hellbent on the standards-testing-accountability agenda, charter school operators, and high-tech enthusiasts for online instruction that most teachers resist change.

For decades, teachers have been blamed for not implementing well the latest reform aimed at classroom practice. Whether it was open space schools, laptops, new reading programs, Direct Instruction, project-based learning that yielded unspectacular or even undesirable student outcomes, teachers were at fault. If only teachers were change-enthusiastic, not change-resistant, critics said. See here and  WhySomeTeachersResistChange-Zimmerman-2006-1 .

Critics were (and are) inaccurate and uninformed.

Teachers have changed in how they have taught. In How Teachers Taught, a history of classroom instruction in U.S. schools since the 1890s (pp. 272-274) and Hugging the Middle, an account of teaching in three districts since the 1990s (pp. 8-12, 62-64), I document incremental changes in classroom practices  over time including the development of hybrid pedagogies. Other researchers have also noted substantial teacher-directed changes in classroom instruction, collaboration, and professional development. Often these changes in practice go unobserved and unnoticed by policymakers.

If teachers have changed, why do they still get blamed for resisting?

*Designers of innovations see teachers adapting rather than faithfully implementing their programs; policymakers want 0 to 60 acceleration in classroom changes and get walking speed instead. Both knock teachers (and schools) when things go awry. Yet seldom do  innovations get inspected for design flaws or do policymakers have their policies examined for logic and evidence. However, when teachers voice their dissent, they get dubbed as resisters. These resisters–often opposing changes for valid reasons–see below–get blamed for innovations that flop. See here and here.

*Teachers question changes because they have experienced coercive efforts that have been thrust on them. Teachers are seldom consulted for their views, much less  participated in designing changes that affect their classrooms. Moreover, the past 30 years of high-profile criticism of failing U.S. schools produced a tsunami of top-down reforms showing little trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In 2003, New York City Chancellor Joel Klein decided that all teachers would use the progressive “Balanced Literacy” program to teach reading. A few months later, to qualify for federal funds and tamp down a revolt from protesting teachers and administrators, he dumped “Balanced Literacy” for a phonics-based program in nearly 40 struggling schools. Or consider that most superintendents and school boards mandate that laptops or iPads be bought and deployed without asking teachers about these potential game-changing decisions in classrooms. A history of coercive changes and little trust in teacher judgment may get sullen compliance but also act as yeast to grow  teacher resistance to top-down decisions rammed into classrooms.

*Often teachers see mandated changes as add-ons to an already complex job. Policymakers seldom reform workplace conditions, authority structures, and culture–central to what teachers experience daily. Few classroom-directed reforms alter what David Tyack and William Tobin called the “grammar of schooling” and Seymour Sarason called  “regularities” of school culture: age-graded school with a teacher in every classroom dealing with groups of children and youth; time schedules; norms of teacher autonomy once the door is closed and little collaboration with peers. When was the last time any reformer recommended non-graded schools to replace the century and a half old age-graded school? Without a fundamental restructuring of the teacher’s workplace, it is sensible for teachers to raise questions and be skeptical of policymaker intentions to alter classroom practices with the next new thing. The few teacher-led schools in the country suggest possibilities when “regularities” are challenged.

So reformers complain about teacher resistance to reform rather than the context of previous imposed changes, the “grammar of schooling,” and teacher perceptions of their work and authority.

Teachers and policymakers judge the worth of classroom changes differently

Policymakers determine the worth of proposed changes in curricular, instructional, and school practices on the criteria of organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. Teachers  accept, modify, and reject innovations and mandates on the basis of similar criteria but with the focus on students and classrooms. In doing so, they ask substantially different questions than policymakers who focus on the system, not individual classrooms.

Called the “practicality ethic ,” teachers ask:

1. Will the innovation or change directly help me solve learning and teaching problems I face now, not problems someone else has defined?

2. If the change helps me, how much of my time and energy will the innovation take to learn in order for students to benefit?

3. How can I adapt the change to fit my particular students?

Few designers of innovative programs or policymakers who adopt changes consider such practical questions that teachers, the implementers of the change, ask. Pity.


Teachers do adopt changes but they are, and will be, skeptical pragmatists of classroom-directed policies, not “stone-age obstructionists” all too often blamed for reforms failing  (practicality ethic, p.3).



Filed under how teachers teach

15 responses to “Teacher Resistance and Reform Failure

  1. Pingback: “Teachers are skeptical pragmatists of classroom-directed policies, not stone-age obstructionists” | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  2. Larry, I’ve been a strong supporter of teachers and teacher educators for years. Thank you for writing this valuable and informative piece! I find it to be quite a quandry that we have such politically heavy-handed reform initiatives at the state and federal levels right now, especially in online education, yet most of the reform policies are actually suppressing some of the most unique innovation. This has been true for our edtech program at Boise State.

    I’ve spent many years trying to develop linkages between researchers, policymakers and practitioners to overcome this dilemma. This summer we are working directly with teachers and instructional designers to empower them to shift their own pedagogy via the 3D GameLab project. I’m curious what happens when we give policymakers what they want (standards-based curriculum, performance-based assessments, competency based learning), but do it in a way that allows teachers and kids to create their own individualized learning experiences. I’m ready for standardized testing to die a fast death.

  3. Some teachers change quickly, others slowly, some not at all. Although many great ideas have been presented, the trouble at the bottom has not been addressed. I wrote about this problem in my 2 books @ http://www.wholechildreform.com If the system isn’t changed, nothing will succeed. Simplistically put we must recognize and accept that it is ok if kids learn in different ways, demonstate learning in different ways, and most important of all, learn at different rates.

    To allow this to happen causes many ” dominoes” to fall which need building blocks to follow. One example is the evil fail system. If kids don’t learn by testing time, when do the learn?

    Change systematically or continue to chase your tails, trying to fit everyone into a small box of word games and math riddles and call me in 20 years when we are still failing.

    Cap Lee

  4. Pingback: Teacher Resistance and Reform Failure | Larry Cuban | histoire.lyonelkaufmann.ch

  5. Keishla Ceaser-Jones

    I don’t think teachers are resistant as much as reform-weary. Every year there is some new program, new product to buy into. And to be honest, all of them may have value in the classroom. But the problem is, you barely have time to get proficient at one skill before they are throwing another one at you. One year it’s Brain-based, then Differentiated Instruction, next Understanding by Design….and the list goes on. And all of these methods have merits. BUT…will I become a brain-based teacher in a year…no. And next year…its something new. Instant results are expected.

    And to top it off….training is never what it should be. They send 7 teachers on a campus to the training…and then expect those teachers to come back and train the rest of the staff. So it’s reform on the cheap.

    It all boils down to who is selling the next great thing in education. It’s an industry that is devouring itself…and the students and teachers are on the menu

    • I wonder if part of this problem is caused by new policymakers unfamiliar with what’s happened in the past and/or transient school-based staff.

      • larrycuban

        Yep, too many policymakers are “unfamiliar with what’s happened in the past.” Sure, I am biased in that I have studied the history of teaching, technology, leadership, and school reform. What I have found is that most policymakers use some version of history that is part remembered, part experience they had in schools as students, and part fiction that they simply and inadvertently add to the mix. Getting a grasp on what occurred when earlier reforms were plopped down into schools and classrooms, an accurate grasp, I should add, would help considerably in making policymakers more humble and respectful of teachers and administrators in designing and adopting policies aimed at “transforming” schools, teaching, and learning.

  6. The longer I work in support of teacher use of technology, the more I find I cannot use the term “teachers” in a monolithic way. As Cap Lee notes here, there are significant numbers of teachers who are wholly resistant to any form of change, and they often put themselves in positions of significant influence in district politics, sadly taking leadership roles in teacher associations. Many teachers accept change in student culture and the media of teaching in stride, and adapt instruction in ways that honor change as a matter of course. They do this in spite of, and often in conflict with, their colleagues in leadership positions.

    I would never utter the words, “Teachers are resistant to change,” as to say so ignores those who teach professionally and take change as an obligation of their profession. I would say, though, that there exist significant numbers of teachers who are devotees of “status quo at any cost,” and who put much energy into resisting healthy, gradual evolution of teaching practice. And the cost to public education is enormous.

    • I’m not sure my words were that strong. Some tchrs resist, some don’t. My point was the system does not allow for real change. In doing so, schools maintain as their fundamental purpose, to perpetuate a subclass. The class war didn’t just begin recently. Schools have been waging it for 200 years. Until teachers take back their profession, they will not be able to change anything.

      • Bill

        I agree with your central point entirely. I’ll simply add that the system works in concert with those system participants (teachers and otherwise) who resist change necessary to serve our student-clients. I see individual or small groups of teachers acting to do that taking-back, but what political capital the teacher-class can muster often seems limited to service of salary and benefits. The voice of healthy change too often gets lost in the din of louder voices focused on self-interest, and the broader audience stops listening to all of us.

  7. Pingback: The Best Articles & Posts On Education Policy In 2011 — So Far | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  8. Pingback: Teacher Resistance and Reform Failure | School Transformation | Scoop.it

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  10. I agree with many points both of the article and ensuing comments. I have one issue that never seems to be fully acknowledged. Have you ever tried to open a discussion about change with a group of teachers BEFORE you change anything? The sad fact is in the 6 different times and 4 organizations where I have seen this done, out of respect and interest in gaining buy-in, the minority of nay-saying teachers who don’t mind being unprofessional use the information they are shown to devise a more trenchant strategy for refusing to cooperate.
    The rotten apple can more easily hi-jack an open conversation, and even teachers who are open and willing to try new things will be co-opted or run over early on by these bullies. And they are bullies. There’s no other word that accurately describes the social censure and non-verbal behavioral tactics they use to subtly coerce less forceful coworkers to get out of the way. I have been a teacher on a faculty and experienced the same effort across the peer relationship. I am not cowed by such people and I stood up for myself, but many others did not, or could not.

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