I Used To Think … And Now I Think (Part 2)

I published Part 1 about how my ideas about school reform have changed over the past half-century. Here is Part 2.


I used to think that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new district and school site governance structures; novel technologies; small high schools with block schedules, advisories, and student learning communities) would lead to better classroom instruction. And now I think that, at best, such structural reforms may be necessary first steps toward improving instruction but are (and have been) seldom sufficient to alter traditional teaching practices.

In teaching nearly 15 years, I had concluded that policies creating new structures (see above examples) would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better.

I revised that conclusion, albeit in slow motion, as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices. I reconsidered the supposed power of structures in changing teaching practices after I left the classroom and began years of researching how teachers have taught following the rainfall of progressive reforms on the nation’s classrooms in the early 20th century and similar showers of standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century.[i]

Still, the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures. The belief that these structural changes will alter traditional classroom practices is in the DNA of policymakers. Moreover, class size changes, national curriculum standards, small high schools, deploying 1:1 laptops, and other structural changes are visible to both patrons and participants. Such visibility suggests vigorous action in solving problems and has potential payoff in votes and longer tenure in office.

As I write, this generation of policymakers invokes that faith in visible structures. They tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running the schools. Federal and state policymakers champion new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for their success in raising students’ test scores. And, of course, they beat the drums loudly for new structures expanding the supply of schools from which parents can choose such as charters, magnets, and other publicly funded alternatives. Entrepreneurial policymakers assume that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their classroom behaviors and, thereby, improved student learning.

Yet my research and that of others deny the genetic links between structures and teaching practice. Like others, I have concluded 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. Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to attending to school and classroom routines, however, will be most difficult since evidence from studies that contradict conventional policymaker wisdom has a long history of being ignored.

3. I used to think that the teacher was critical to student and school success. And now, I continue to think the same way. I have not changed my mind about the centrality of the teacher to student learning and school performance. The years I spent in classrooms as a teacher, the years I visited classrooms as a superintendent, and the years I studied classroom teaching have strengthened my belief in the powers teachers have in influencing their students’ minds and hearts. The tempered optimism I have today about schooling children and youth rests in this belief in teachers who have made and continue to make a difference in individual student’s lives.

That a scrum of research studies and policymaker pronouncements in the past few years have affirmed teachers’ influence in students’ academic performance and actual lives supports the faith that I and many other educators have had in teachers. Facts and faith merge nicely.

Yet the current anti-teacher union rhetoric so popular among the entrepreneurial class and the continuing condescension of so many policymakers toward career teachers who have remained in classrooms erode both faith and facts; they eat away at any gains in respect teachers accrued in the past decade.

These three I-used-to-think and now-I-think reflections extracted from nearly a half-century of experience- and research-produced knowledge get at the heart of public schooling in America, especially in cities. That many (but by no means most) schools with skilled and knowledgeable teachers can promote civic, scientific, math, and other forms of literacy, preparation for college, independent decision-making, and thoughtful deliberation in children and youth is central to what schools can do in a democratic society even in the lop-sided three-tiered system of schooling that perpetuates long-standing societal inequities.


[i] See How Teachers Taught, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) and Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009). Other researchers had reached a similar conclusion about reform-driven structures having little influence on classroom practices. See, for example, Richard Elmore, “Structural Reform and Educational Practice,” Educational Researcher, 24(9), 1995: pp. 23-26.


Filed under school reform policies

24 responses to “I Used To Think … And Now I Think (Part 2)

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  3. Marilyn M.

    This post confirms my belief that teachers make the difference. A long time friend always advised me that my job wasn’t to bend the will, but to educate the mind. Her other quote was that experienced teachers have a clinical sense about children, their needs and their learning. The present testing climate can discourage a good teacher who wants to create a sense of belonging and a learning environment based in creativity, curiosity and deep understanding.

  4. Hi Larry, I did not weigh in on part one since, for that context, the Canadian situation is too different from the one in the US for useful parallels to be drawn.
    On the two parts above, however, I do believe our situations do align well. In addition it seems to me that your conclusions applies well here too.
    Since I started my teaching career the school governance structure in my province (NL) has been completely overhauled on four occasions. We have had three separate waves of school district compaction–as of this September we will finally be reduced from 5 districts to 1 English and 1 small French, as well as a governance shift from religions-denomination-led to government-led. Through it all, performance has shown marked improvement. From my view on the ground, however, I see what you see: the improvements may have happened as the structures changed but they were not CAUSED by it. They were caused, rather, by much hard work on behalf of the teachers’ association–which, of course, includes the teachers, the DOE program specialists, the various school district specialists and Ed. Faculty of Memorial U. It was a process of group- and individual- competency building; a valuable but almost invisible process. Invisible, that is, to those OUTSIDE the system, not the practitioners who lived it every day.
    Unfortunately many of the decisions are made, as you mentioned, by those outsiders who, no doubt will continue to crow about the strides THEY are making. The one comfort that we can all take is that the practitioners will continue to do their vital work. The policy makers just need to not lay more obstacles in the way.

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  6. Gary Ravani

    Two issues:

    1) ETS, in its study The family: America’s Smallest School, as well as numerous other studies suggest that schools account for about 1/3 of the variability in student achievement test scores (on the NAEP). Teachers are a part of that “school” mix, but so is curriculum (typically not in control of teachers), resources including support personnel (not in control of teachers), and site leadership (not in control of teachers). Darling-Hammond suggests the “teacher part” of achievement amounts to 10-14%. of the whole. You may be talking about other factors than strictly “achievement test scores,” but to suggest the 10-14% tail (teachers) is wagging the 86-90% dog is a bit of a stretch. Teachers in control of their profession working in concert with all of the other stakeholders and with reasonable levels of support can do a lot. But alone? Difficult to support that concept.

    2) My duties frequently bring me to our state capital to engage policy making groups as well as politicians. At first I would always introduce myself as a 35 year classroom teacher, believing that would lend my opinions some credibility. I soon came to realize just the opposite was often true. It appears spending 35 years working with students seemed to be an indicator to many that I lacked ambition or ability. I hope not.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder about teacher influence on student performance, Gary. Your second point accords with my experience in the field. The key word in the following sentence asked over and over again of career teachers–“are you still teaching?” is “still.”

  7. Bridget

    Larry, as usual, you are spot on in your analysis. Building the skill and knowledge base of individual teachers and collective groups of teachers, towards continuous improvements in the classroom and in school support systems is really what is needed. In addition, the “wrap around” services for our at-risk students goes a long way towards improving outcomes for those student populations. My experiences with high poverty students and families, as well as special needs students, has led me to the conclusion that schools which educate these types of students can not function in isolation from other social support systems that can provide a broad range of needed services that are critical for these students and their families.

    While i have confidence that teachers and administrators are able to continue to build that knowledge and skill, what is really concerning to me is the attempts to dismantle and discredit the teacher profession. Here in Louisiana our governor has decided that teacher certification and school accreditation, along with attendance in classroom, is no longer necessary for students to receive a quality education. He wants parents to have the choice to send their child to any “school”, be it virtual, unaccredited, religious, charter, etc. Yet parents are expected to make “choices” without the necessary information to inform those choices. I believe these types of policies will have the greatest impact on our high poverty students and at-risk students.

    The latest fads in education are just that, fads. Some may help make small imrovements, but I doubt that having a laptop on their desk will make a difference without the skill and knowledge you are talking about. Those of us in the trenches know that it is content knowledge and effective instructional practices, along with good ole fashioned caring relationships, that really have the biggest impact in classrooms. I hope that we are able to hold on to those things in this current environment that is attempting to dismantle our educational institutions. These are scary times…I hope we can overcome and rebuild once the EduDeformers have moved on to the next big thing.

  8. EB

    Gary Ravani’s citations that teachers account for 10-14% of variance in achievement seems right to me. But that’s a very important 10-14%, and can make the difference between falling behind and staying on track. And I would add to your initial “used to think,” that structural reform could have a big impact on student outcomes is certainly true. But it’s also true that structural reforms can make it hard for your point #3, about teachers, to have their best effect. I think that block scheduling as a case in point. For some subjects, it can work fine. But in our school the math, foreign language, and music teachers pointed out that it would make life much harder for their students, who depend in frequent exposure and practice sessions and are discouraged by 90 minute or 120 minute class periods. That argument made so much sense that the rest of the teachers went along with them and voted down block scheduling.

  9. Is there possibly an element of the profession being collectively hoist with it’s own “petar” about the situation you describe Larry? Personally, I never entered the profession to make the world a fairer place, or free socially disadvantaged, or indeed any children from the constraints inherited from their parents or location. I was shocked when I began teaching, to find I was quite unusual in that and that many teachers I met would confidently assert that was indeed their primary role. They still do. I come across it all the time here in the UK. I know from my commercial work in ICT that businesses are very quick to pick up on those kinds of messages from teachers and to then weave them skilfully into their own marketing and sales processes.
    So is it really surprising then to find many policy makers capitalising on that and peddling the myth that schools are not just the most powerful engines of social change, but that teachers are therefore responsible for delivering that change?

    • larrycuban

      Ah, Joe, perhaps you are correct in that last sentence of your comment. I had not thought about it in the way you put it. Thanks.

  10. I think you put it nicely:”the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures.” I also agree that regardless of the intent of policy makers, it is teachers that teach. I have experienced first hand how teachers have implemented the common core (which for math is supposedly supposed to focus more on learning how to think more than rote memorization) in pretty much the same way they taught the old state core.

    Still, ‘no policy’ is not an option. The policy sets the incentives and background within which teachers can teach. I personally think that the background structures often get in the way of good teaching. But if everything you say is true, what should policy makers do?

    • larrycuban

      Be informed about teacher perspectives on any policy that has classroom ramifications. Be transparent about what policies are intended to do insofar as classroom practices. Draft policies that build teacher capacities to teach. Build structures that bring teachers together to work on common classroom issues. How’s that for a start?

  11. Mary

    I used to think that the government could fix big problems, such as improving education, by creating large federally funded programs. Then came No Child Left Behind … and standardized testing – the idea was well intentioned but the system that was implemented resulted in many unintended consequences such as teaching to the test. Now we are in the initial system implementation of the Affordable Heath Care Program – again the idea is well intentioned, pay attention to the system that is implemented. Are there unintended consequences, and deviations from the original intent?

    The Next Generation Science Standards include a list of seven Crosscutting concepts. Two of these concepts focus on systems:
    4. Systems and system models. Defining the system under study specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system — provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that
    are applicable throughout science and engineering.
    7. Stability and change. For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.

    It appears that the bigger and older the system the more difficult it is to change. Both the public education system and the current health care system are well established and large. To define the school system a as a system and make an explicit model of it with reforms as changes introduced, and then apply the practices and crosscutting concepts described in the new science standards would be an interesting exercise in understanding of our education system and the attempts to reform it.

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  13. Dear Larry,

    Often a thing is beautiful because it crystallizes, condenses, and clarifies reality so that those of us with less experience, knowledge, insight, and wisdom can understand it. The complexity of public education is often poorly understood by the public and school people alike. Thus the brevity and acuity of your two-part essay is a thing of exquisite beauty. Your flirtation with Utopia (NoWhere) from the outset of your career and in your book, TINKERING TOWARD UTOPIA (as I recall the title), juxtaposed with your recent two-part essay, brings to mind G B Shaw’s quip: “God help the young man who is not a radical, and God help the old man who is.”

    Effective educators are consumed with service and the human challenges that come at us minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour. If utopian idealism drives us and some of your commentators to passionately pursue “equality” or “excellence”, we must endure the spray that results from spitting into the wind. My reformist potential is a toothpick compared to your elegant lance when windmills appear on the reform road. But every day I spent in the classroom and in school service taught me that human beings are and will remain profoundly unequal except with regard to their essential dignity in the eyes of God or Natural Law, whether they be teacher, student, administrator, or parent. Trying to bring equality and change (“reform”) reality in public education or in society comes very close to meeting Einstein’s definition of insanity. The very individuality and variegated shades of human differences and unequal packages of trade-offs in strengths and weaknesses distributed among individuals and groups invites us to treasure our heritage and the human potential, something that good schools and good teachers, as you point out, can do. The inevitable drift of democratic institutions toward mediocrity and mindless egalitarianism is challenge enough for anyone who dare tells the Emperor (i.e., the voting public and the all-powerful consumer) that his splendid clothes reveal more than just splendor.

    Providing equal opportunity for all is a duty for any school or teacher. We also have a duty to serve the myriad other missions assigned to the public schools by the Emperor, as you suggest. I spent my career trying to understand and translate the world around us with my students and my colleagues, so I never got around to “perfecting human nature” or promoting “social justice” as Jefferson and the utopian left invites us to do. JoeN and I may be cut from the same philosophical cloth. It has always seemed to me that culture is the horse and schools are the cart.

    Thank you for STILL being a teacher and for interpreting and translating the bee hive we inhabit! Great essay!

    • larrycuban

      Milo, thanks for your comment on the two-part blog on my thinking about reform over the decades. I do like the metaphor of spitting in the wind and getting hit by the spray. You have taught for decades and I have both admired and respected your work with kids at Aragon.Your words mean a lot to me. Thank you.

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