The Fundamental Dilemma Within Any Instructional Reform

Over five years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here and here).

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all policymakers, past and present, intent upon altering how teachers teach from kindergartens to Advanced Placement courses. Whether teachers are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family the tension between policymakers seeking to change traditional classroom practices and classroom teachers who are expected to put new instructional policies into practice–has been a constant.

In concrete terms, the dilemma is basically that those who adopt instructional policies aimed at changing how teachers teach (e.g., turn-of-the-century Progressives advocating student-centered learning, the highly touted Reading First program that the federal government mandated and monitored a decade ago; current deploying of tablets and software to every teacher and child in district schools asking that teachers drop old ways of teaching and embrace new ones such as “personalized learning.”

In short, new instructional policies a  century ago and now assume that teachers are part of the problem–why else adopt a policy seeking improvements in teaching practices? How, then, do those in authority, then, get people perceived as causing the instructional problem to implement new classroom-aimed policies? Now that is a conundrum.

After all, policymakers (e.g., school board members, state legislators, U.S. Secretaries of Education) who make the consequential decisions do not teach. They seldom enter classrooms. Teachers teach.

Policymakers, however, are not powerless in getting teachers to put new instructional policies into practice. They have more than words at their disposal. They can mandate changes, monitor what happens in the classroom, and hold teachers accountable for student outcomes. Using state standards, increased testing, and using penalties in a coercive accountability system is what occurred under No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

Policymakers also possess less regulatory, more enticing policy tools that can nudge teachers in the direction of altering daily teaching practices. Some policy instruments decision-makers can dangle in front of teachers contain incentives and push them into  implementing a new instructional policy. These tools range  from putting cash on the stump for schools to share, hiring new staff, introducing new curriculum materials, and erecting an infrastructure of technical assistance and professional development. Depending on the context, such tools can entice teachers to try out, say, a new reading or math program in their classrooms.

These policy tools are, as expected, limited since it is up to the teachers to take advantage of the resources policymakers put in front of them to change how they teach. Teachers must volunteer, choose to move in step with the new instructional policy, and modify how they render their lessons to students. Teacher autonomy is a highly prized value among educators and the public.

And some teachers do embrace the direction their decision-makers want.  They do so because the incentives are indeed attractive. They do so because a segment of teachers are not only sympathetic to the direction policymakers want teachers to move, say, student-centered teaching, but have believed and practiced those ways of teaching in their classrooms. Both policy tools and teachers’ prior beliefs create a cadre of teachers–I would estimate one out of four teachers–who are more than willing to go along with the new instructional policy and make some of the suggested changes in planning and implementing daily lessons.

What about the rest of the teachers? It is a slog for policymakers to make in-roads into that larger population of teachers. Time and commitment matter.

In different districts over the decades, evidence of top decision-makers’ commitment to five-plus years for putting the new instructional policy into practice pops up. It is rare, however.

In these instances, policymakers have committed ample resources to help teachers gain more knowledge and skills to put the new policy into practice, have built an infrastructure of professional development with on-site coaches and others to help teachers collaborate in working out lessons and seeing others teach in ways consistent with the policy.  Such districts that have made such commitments probably raise the population of teachers from one in four to just over half of all teachers. When that tipping point arises, the new instructional policy has become standard practice in most classrooms. Whether that policy adapted to the contours of the district and modified time and again is faithful to the original intentions of those original decision-makers is doubtful.

And then there are those many teachers who continue to practice as they have believing deeply their ways of teaching are superior to the instructional policy adopted years earlier by peers.

So the story of putting a new instructional policy into practice is a conundrum filled with fundamental tensions that won’t go away. Policymakers decide that instruction has to move in a different direction suggesting that teachers themselves have contributed to the instructional problem. Then policymakers put those very same teachers who are seen as part of the problem into the position of solving the problem they have made in their classrooms.   And that is the fundamental dilemma facing those top officials who advocate for “personalized learning,” the ambitious teaching embedded in Common Core standards in English and math, and similar instructional reforms.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

13 responses to “The Fundamental Dilemma Within Any Instructional Reform

  1. David F

    Hi Larry–thanks for this. One add-on I’d say is an issue is that the policymakers often don’t bother to include the teachers in the conversation. Often when they do, they cherry-pick those who already agree to the policy direction and then claim that equated to true inclusion.

    The odd thing is that this goes against what has been preached in business schools for some time–that management should be more of a conversation, all stakeholders should be involved, employees should be empowered, etc. See and

    So, maybe the problem isn’t the teachers so much (who’ve seen dozens of initiatives come and go, often hooked to unsupported ideas about learning (i.e., learning styles) or unproven technology) a it is the policymakers themselves…

  2. educationstate

    The more important question is why policymakers think pedagogy is something they should dictate.

    Leadership doesn’t have to be dictatorship.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment.

      • educationstate

        Great blog, by the way, Larry. It’s fantastic, and I think really important, especially today, that educationalists of your pedigree are engaging directly with the public. It takes a lot of effort to maintain a blog, I know, but it is very much appreciated.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them.

  3. Kathleen H

    You just summed up my dissertation, Larry (in which I cite your work heavily).

  4. mike g

    Great blog.

    Like you say, the supe is 95% likely to lose The Slog. And even if somehow the supe “wins” and gets to 50+1% buy-in, and then somehow survives your excellent point about dilution of the practice…

    …it’s near 100% that the instructional practice will be unwound shortly after he/she leaves. Supes rarely get to groom successors (like Rhee-to-Henderson).

    So what is a supe to do?

    One alternative — supe gives freedom to teachers to do what they want, but hold them accountable for results — has been even less appealing to district teachers.

    Larry, is there any path forward? You’ve written so widely, that perhaps you’ve already answered this.

  5. mike g

    I decided I should at least try to answer my own question.

    The best I could come up with for my supe friends is to accept “The Slog,” make peace with it, and then:

    a. Find your tribe (the 25% of teachers who believe your instructional ideas). Help them succeed (curric, coaching). Measure.

    b. Don’t disparage the other 75%. Leave them free to do it their way. And no backhanded “Well obviously mine is the best way, but I’m going to leave you free to keep harming children with your methods.”

    c. Emotionally, supes need to get past “But I can’t abandon the kids in those other 75% of classrooms.” You’re not. You’re acknowledging that you will fail to help them if you impose your will. Just like you can’t help the kids in the district nearby, or across the country, or in Kenya.

    You can either vie to help 25% of the kids with your pet instructional practice, with some chance of success PLUS the ability to win new converts over time, PLUS the knowledge that when you leave, your better trained tribe will remain behind and thrive…

    or you can do what everyone else does; vie for 100% and fail.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comments, Mike, and answering your own question about what district superintendents could do strategically. While the percentage may vary of those teachers already inclined or wanting to go in instructional direction superintendent charts out–when I was superintendent, my estimate was about one-third–what you proposed is what I did. My way or the highway cliche is a recipe for disaster. Working with those teachers who want to move in the direction person has laid out without denigrating the majority (after all, teachers learn best from one another and there will always be some movement toward the one-third (or one-quarter you estimated) is pretty close to what I did for seven years.

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