What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in teachers’  tool kits. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

Age-graded school structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms. Teachers adapt to this dominant structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare lesson to get students ready for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions ala Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.

These principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.

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*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.

8 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

8 responses to “What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

  1. Alice in PA

    As you know, most of what you say in this post is backed up by the teacher professional development research literature. The main reason I chose that field for my dissertation topic was the countless hours of wasted time that I spent in professional development coupled with the two amazing professional development experiences that truly changed the way that I thought about teaching and changed my actual eaching ( those two things are not always the same). And just las you say that context matters, not every teacher in those two professional development programs had the same positive and transformative experiences as I did.
    Just like teaching our K – 12 students, teaching teachers is hard work and changes are made incrementally. perhaps it is even more difficult because teachers have a lot more experience and knowledge that they bring to their jobs. If we are going to be asked to change our current practice, we need to have a reason to do so. I think of this as akin to the conceptual change model of constructivist learning. However most professional development or “reform” movements seems to treat teachers as empty vessels to be filled with some kind of pedagogical knowledge.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Dorian, for re-blogging my post. I enjoyed reading your post on “Page vs. Screen” and would like to use it as a guest post on my blog in the next few weeks. Do I have your permission?

  2. JoeN

    The question that you open with Larry illustrates how deeply business thinking has suffused educational practice. CEOs worldwide complain that they are constantly dealing with colleagues’ problems while rarely being approached by anyone with a solution.

    While accepting that is true in business. All too frequently policy makers, and others with power and influence in the educational world, fail to acknowledge they need to understand the landscape (to ‘pull the curtain aside’ to use your phrase) before they even attempt to formulate a solution.

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