Challenging Reformers’ Conventional Wisdom about Structures and Classroom Practice

Restructure school governance by creating site councils where teachers and principal decide  about curriculum, organization, and instruction. Restructure the comprehensive high school into small high schools with longer school days, teachers as advisers, and a college prep curriculum. Restructure teaching and learning by equipping students with laptops (or tablets) and have students taking online courses a few hours a day. Restructure teacher staff development by establishing professional learning communities.

Policymakers love creating new and different structures because they believe such arrangements will alter how teachers teach and then lead to more and better student learning. But that chain of  assumptions has a few kinks in it.

Researchers have discovered (and rediscovered), however, that once new structures are put into place—school site councils, small high schools, 1:1 computing, professional “learning communities”–teaching practices do not move directly or even necessarily from point A to point B. Moreover, without teaching practices moving the needle of change then the impact on student learning is negligible.

Researchers Richard Elmore and Penelope Petersen examined three elementary schools where principals and teachers fervent about “constructivist” classroom practices (student-centered teaching) had established infrastructures of teacher collaboration, different kinds of student groupings, and flexible scheduling. Teachers raved about how they now taught differently and their daily lessons were ambitious forays into cultivating student understanding of ideas and applying concepts to real-world situations. Yet when researchers observed lessons they saw something else:

“We saw teaching practice that looked mostly ordinary. Teachers would, for example, supply most of the answers to questions they themselves had asked, they would organize their classrooms so as to make themselves the center of learning, children’s understandings were not the dominant theme of teacher-student interaction, and most activities focused on relatively routinized learning” (p.24).

Researchers from Fred Newmann to Helen Marks and Karen Louis Seashore and others have found little to modest changes in classroom lessons after restructured schools enlarged teacher decision making, focused on curriculum construction, and initiated use of computers for instruction ( EDUCATIONAL EVALUATION AND POLICY ANALYSIS). Nor should readers forget the literature on reducing class size–a structural change–where, time and again, smaller classes (from 30 to 25 students or from 25 students to 20 students) were mandated and teaching practices remained pretty much the same.

Findings from researchers who have observed lessons and listened to teachers are clear: changing certain structures may be a necessary condition to alter teaching practices but it is hardly a sufficient one. Why is that? Because other factors come into play to influence what and how teachers teach beyond new structures: Individual teacher beliefs matter. School and district cultures of collaboration matter. How schools are organized matter. School and district leadership matter. These factors combine to create what reformers euphemistically call “barriers” to change, obstacles that reformers must disassemble for routine classroom lessons to become ambitious teaching ventures that produce desired student outcomes.

Teachers are not operatic divas or lone rangers doing as they see fit; they are gatekeepers, mediators, and policy brokers who figure out which policies and their components that policymakers and administrators have delivered to their door get converted into lessons for their students; they are influenced a great deal by the school and district context in which they work. Thus, putting into place structural changes is only the beginning of a long arduous journey, not a joyous arrival at the destination.

Question: Why do policymakers continue to shower schools with structural reforms, assuming that once these are implemented, teachers will shift their routine practices to better ones that will lead to far more student engagement and learning than they had prior to the structural changes?

Richard Elmore had one answer to the question:

To reformers, changing structures signal practitioners and parents that they are
really serious about making important changes. In short, structural changes are politically symbolic. They choose structural changes also because they are easier options to pursue than, for example, closing down low-performing schools and sending children to better ones; hiring high-performing teachers with a common set of beliefs and practices that have produced desired student achievement; firing ineffective teachers and principals. So reformers like to change structures because, among the array of alternatives available for transforming failing schools into successful ones, they are feasible, readily available, and politically symbolic.

These reasons again point to the fact that reform-driven policymakers’ and teachers’  beliefs, norms, and incentives differ; when it comes to structures’ impact on teacher lessons, they live in different worlds.

Those different worlds, of course, account for the kinks in reformers’ chain of reasoning: Changing structures do not often alter classroom practices and, as a result, hardly lead to improved student learning.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

17 responses to “Challenging Reformers’ Conventional Wisdom about Structures and Classroom Practice

  1. Larry,
    As always, you make great points about the difficulties of education reform. Making big or small changes in structure are often easy ways to show parents and teachers that positive change is happening. Throughout my years as a parent leader in schools, I am always surprised that most of these changes are made without any discussions about how they affect student learning. That’s because those questions take much deeper thinking. It takes a desire to focus exclusively on the child rather than on the politics of the day. My article “Will Small-Part Fixes Save Public Schools, posted at Psychology Today [] speaks to the same kind of myopic lens you point out in this article. Until we start seeing education through a systemic lens, I’m afraid we are going to continue with fixes that lead no where. Thanks for a great article!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment, Marilyn

      • Ornit

        I’m looking for sources that emphasize the need to take into account the teachers beliefs and the institute’s culture in which the reform is done. that the context in which the reform is done has to be considered as its culture and the culture of the stakeholders and the instructors who enact the change all influence the outcome.

        Thank you,

  2. Thank you Dr. Cuban for another excellent blog. Your point is clear, and you included great references as well. You are a gift. Thank you!
    Reformers and policy makers do enjoy riding on that merry go round, and more than a few researchers in search of that Holy Testing Grail willingly join them on that ride every time. The moral problem of course is that our children, parents, teachers, and schools pay the cost for those rides.
    Imagine a world where research was balanced. Where life was more than a pre and post outcome. I imagine a world where research contained both rich sources of quantitative and qualitative data, longitudinal in scope, and actually included the voices of all stakes holders. A world where researchers stated up front who is paying for their study, and who is paying them. Might make a nice start for us in my humble opinion.
    In medicine, doctors and researchers insist on “primum non nocere”, first, do no harm. My thinking is in educational research such ethical requirements seem lost in pressures to prove an effect. For example when states mandate high school exit exams did they ask students, parents and teachers if we impose a testing requirement for our high school graduation that ensures a student fails, where is the benefit students?
    We have spent hundreds of billions on whims; fail proof curriculums, prefect teacher testing exams, and billions more on New Standards Rod Paige, and now New Standards Arne Duncan. Reminds of that old rhyme “Three blind mice see how they run they all run after the farmer’s wife”.
    Never once from my prospective did they ask parents, children, or teachers if they thought any of this might hurt children. It was more like here it is “Leave No Child Behind” just do it, and now it’s ‘Race To The Top” just do it. I’m marching to a different drummer with Save Our Schools.
    Thank you Larry for being a beacon of light in a world gone dark,
    Jesse Turner
    Children are more than test scores

  3. Alex Silverman

    Larry, thank you for the great post. It isn’t all that surprising that when Elmore and Petersen observed these, supposedly constructivist, teachers they found little to no change in actual teaching practices. I think it is because of the way these ideas are presented to teachers. It seems too often teachers sole way of learning about new teaching methods are through workshops and workshops are a horrible way to present constructivist ideas.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your comment, particularly your observation about workshops conveying constructivist ideas to teachers. I guess it depends on who is leading the workshop, the beliefs about teaching and learning in the heads of the leaders, and putting those ideas into practice. I do not think it is just the vehicle called a “workshop” that makes the difference.

      • Ornit

        I’m reading this blog and the responses to this blog more than six months after they were posted, but they are very relevant to me for two reasons:
        1. We are conducting a “teachers as designers” workshop in the coming ICLS conference, where, among other ideas, we’ll discuss the process of becoming “designers” as one way for adapting socio-constructivist approaches.
        2. I’m writing my PhD thesis which is based on a change introduced in an academic institute and the view presented in your blog is very relevant. Can you suggest recommended papers that discuss this as well?

        Thank you,

      • larrycuban

        If you could be more specific, it would help me suggest sources.

  4. Larry,

    Having worked with people trying to implement constructivist teaching strategies in mathematics and being marginally successful, I think it’s largely because they misunderstand what the purpose of changing pedagogy is about. I talked to a colleague who suggested that using math games and puzzles in class wasn’t an example of inquiry based learning (which is probably true) and so shouldn’t be used (which I think is false). The purpose of many of these changes in pedagogy is to get students to spend more time in the classroom thinking, and less time watching someone else do all the thinking.

    There’s no question that much of what passes for pedagogical reform is just moving the same pieces around the chess board, and not changing the rules of the game.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment. If your last sentence about “moving the same pieces around the chess board, and not changing the rules of the game” refers to the organizational setting–the age-graded school and its influence on how teachers teach–I agree with you. But I do not know if that is what you mean.

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  6. Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I’ve worked in several professional development settings pertaining to mathematics teaching and learning which involved at least one of the structure changes you mention (either collaboration, constructivist methods, or both). What I found to be most difficult in my work with teachers was generating discussion about the content to be taught. It seemed that the assumption was that if we are planning a lesson about adding fractions, for instance, that all involved are in agreement about what students should come to understand about adding fractions and that the hard work is in the lesson planning (grouping of students, maintaining engagement, etc). I believe the hard work is in articulating a shared goal for the structure change. Teachers like those in the studies mentioned in your article, and Cohen’s Mrs. Oublier, can’t fully adapt the structure change if we don’t back up and talk about the underlying assumptions related to the concepts to be taught.
    I recently started a blog ( as a way to suggest small changes that do not interrupt what teachers are currently doing, but over time the accumulation of the changes might lead to a more full examination of student thinking and classroom practices that address student thinking. We’ll see how it goes.

    • larrycuban

      Belinda, I agree with your point that knowledge of math, in your case, is thoroughly entangled with the skills and teachers (both K-12 and university) need to focus on both, regardless of the structure in play–constructivist learning, professional learning communities, cooperative learning, etc.

      May your blog flourish.

  7. Greg Netzer

    Larry, a student of yours at the University of Kansas probably in the late 80’s. Follow your blog on a regular basis and find it quite useful. One you wrote a couple of weeks ago using Finland leader was terrific. This one today is equally provocative. So, what does work? Does effective collaboration using social capital our best chance? Keep up your great contribution to our field.

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