Inside the Black Box of the Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education


Readers who have been with me from August 2009 know that I have mentioned writing a book on the linkages between policy and practice in technology, curriculum, and accountability; I posted pieces of my research, for example, on laptops in a school fictitiously-named Las Montanas (see here, here, and here). And there have been other posts as I have drafted and revised different parts of the book.

In this post, I quote from the Preface and some thoughts I had about writing  Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice.

From the Preface:

I have written a great deal over the past 30 years on teaching, curriculum, school organization, technology, and reform. The topics are all interconnected. After all, reform-driven policymakers have sought to alter classroom practices for at least two centuries in the U.S.  They have used structural reforms from the age-graded school to the non-graded school; from pushing new technologies into classrooms as the 19th century slate blackboard to the 21st century “smart” whiteboard.  The same holds for curricular reform;  late-19th century reformers established one academic curriculum for all students and then dumped it a quarter-century later for a differentiated curriculum tailored to their estimates of  whether high school students would go directly into industrial and commercial jobs, take up white-collar occupations, or attend college. Then, yet again, 21st century policymakers returned to the Common Core standards for all U.S. schools. All of these and many more structural reforms in school governance, curriculum, organization, and technology aimed to change teaching practices and teacher lessons so that students would learn more, faster, and better. Then those students would complete college, get jobs, and make the nation a better place.

Over many years, I have developed these themes independently in books, articles, op-ed pieces and now in my twice-weekly blog. What I do in this book is draw together these separate themes about structural reforms, societal changes, the role of public schools in a democracy, and teaching in what I call the black box of the classroom. In my career as a teacher, administrator, superintendent, and scholar I have seen up close these connections between policy and practice; top-decision makers making policy decisions  and first-grade teachers implementing those decisions; and societal conditions of poverty, inequality, and race  influencing school practices and classroom lessons again and again.

I lay out the tangled nature of these reforms, analyze successes and failures, and offer my thinking on why the black box of classroom instruction has been largely impervious to structural reforms aimed at moving teaching practices from teacher-centered to student-centered, students from absorbing subject-matter to critical thinking and problem solving. Classroom lessons, however, have been, paradoxically largely stable, seldom fulfilling reformers’ ambitions.

In this book, I synthesize and connect my thinking about reform-driven policy making and classroom instruction; at the same time, I try to break new ground in understanding the contradiction of enormous structural change in U.S. public schools amid stability in teaching practices.

From the Acknowledgements section of the book:

I have found that no matter how many books I have completed starting a new one still gives me the jitters. Writing is both satisfying and frustrating, filled with surprises and disappointments. None of my books has come easily to me.

As I have gotten older, however, I have discovered that revising and crafting words, sentences, and paragraphs has become as satisfying as creating the questions that drive the book, formulating the arguments, collecting and analyzing evidence, and drawing conclusions. Although I still get a kick out of ensuring an internal consistency between questions, arguments, evidence, and conclusions what has surprised me is how much pleasure I get from finding the right word, fashioning vivid phrases that capture accurately an image or idea I want to convey, and rewriting paragraphs a third and fourth time. All of these and more I have experienced in writing this book.

Some additional thoughts. When I was younger, spilling words on pages that capture ideas I had and my experiences in teaching and administration–the creative part of writing–were the highs of writing that I savored. Organizing the sentences and paragraphs were, of course, necessary but it was closer, at least in my mind then, to mopping a dirty floor and cleaning up an untidy room: important but lacking adrenalin-rush of ideas and experiences spilling over page after page. That has changed.

This affection for the craft of the writing has developed slowly over the years and while I need the creative rush, it is artistry of composing and ordering language that now gives me the most satisfaction. I do not know if this is a pattern among aging writers of nonfiction but this is what I have noticed in my writing books over the decades.


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21 responses to “Inside the Black Box of the Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education

  1. Congratulations, Larry, on your latest book. I remember your name from my studies at university in Australia, many years ago, and have enjoyed reading your thoughts on your blog.

    I admire your perseverance and determination to write about improving education; the fact that you “are your own man” and write about classrooms and teachers and curriculum as you see them without fear or favour is refreshing.

    Thank you for your contributions to my own thinking about teaching, and I suspect, many other educators at various stages in their careers. Long may you continue to provoke and gently prod for reform.

  2. And since it appears that Larry is too humble to post the link so that we can all *buy* the book, here it is
    Congratulations Larry, I can’t wait to read it! I have learned so much from your other books (as well as from this blog).

  3. I look forward as well to reading your book. I was struck by two points that you make in the preface. First , is your reference to the pleasure you take in the writing process, obvious proof that your are a writer at heart, as well as an educator. And secondly, there is your paragraph about how little classroom and instructional practices have actually changed in spite of all the reform initiatives. I am very interested in your analysis of this topic. I can certainly see that in my own career experience. There are certain things that I adopted fully as an English teacher because they made sense and they were a huge improvement over what was previously done e.g. the writing process ( something that was not actually taught formally until the 1980’s). And there are other ideas that have merit but are vague and only theoretically possible. I have concluded that the only changes that are ever fully realized are those that are practical. Class size, finances and human nature all play limiting roles

    Cathy Haley

  4. Cal

    Larry, congratulations! Are you going to have any local readings?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cal. No local readings since I have already begun teaching in Washington, D.C.and will be here until mid-June.

  5. Cal

    I missed that somehow. Is there a link on why you’re in DC?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Cal,
      I am the resident faculty at Stanford-in-Washington where 25 undergraduates work 10 weeks in federal agencies and take courses in the evening for academic credit. I teach one of the courses on “Good Schools: Policy, Research, and Practice.” I do the blog from here. The quarter ends in mid-June when I return home.

  6. Thanks Larry, I still refer to your first book “Oversold and underused” so this one should keep me going for the next ten years…..always grateful for your contribution to this debate…I hope to be in Palo Alto later this year so perhaps I could pop in for a cup of tea and you can sign my copy?

  7. Ian Rae

    Congrats Larry! “why have classroom practices been largely stable” sounds like a great question to explore. Sometimes change is so slow it appears to not be happening. 10-speed bicycles today versus 1970s models look like nothing has changed, but a closer look reveals everything has changed. I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if education is like that, or not.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Ian. The analogy between the 10-speed bike I got in 1976 and the 21-speed I have now is a fine comparison to get at stability and change.

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    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Paul, for taking a look at the book and applying some of what is in there to the current “policy talk” about school reform.

  9. Hi Larry, Looking forward to reading your newest book. The pleasure you take in the writing itself is always evident in your work. I just finished reading “Against the Odds” and recommended it to a colleague assuring her that it’s actually both a well-written and thoughtfully researched book. (I wish I could say that about more policy oriented books). I was wondering if there are any published updates (online or in print) about how the Mapleton small school reform efforts are faring today.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Joseph, for your comments. I do not know of any updates about Mapleton. I do know that the Superintendent, Charlotte Ciancio would be delighted to hear from any reader of “Against the Odds” and probably will point out any subsequent publication, if there are any.

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