Eighth Anniversary of Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my eighth anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments.

For past anniversary posts, I have listed statistics for the years I have published the blog and why I continue to write year after year. For this year, however, I offer the principles that have guided my thinking and actions as a practitioner, scholar, and blogger about teaching, learning, and school reform.

My Guiding Principles

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. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters.

So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. 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. I prize both experience- and research-produced knowledge. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Although public schools are essentially conservative institutions committed to reinforce and pass on sanctioned knowledge and community values, they do change and have done so for decades. Schools are not fossils preserved in amber. Both change and stability mark the history of tax-supported public schools. They are “dynamically conservative” institutions that embrace change to maintain stability.

Change comes from both outside and inside schooling. Basically, public schools are political institutions totally dependent upon taxpayers and voters and therefore vulnerable to social and economic gusts of reform that blow across the nation. Those winds of reform, however, lose force as they settle into these conservative institutions. Administrators and teachers adapt organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional reforms and alter them as they move across classrooms.

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 the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reform-driven policymakers, donors, and researchers who try to alter the how and what of teaching. Common Core State Standards, adding Computer Science and coding to the curriculum, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar  inventions spill forth from local, state, and federal policymakers. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction, “personalized learning”) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to dramatically alter 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 what they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities and the discretion that teachers exercise 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.

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., influences what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this “grammar of schooling” in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons in separate classrooms covering chunks of the required curriculum for that grade or subject. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students 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, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

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 by designers. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers regularly do daily. I include new content and ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been deep 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 a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering dramatically classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes using their existing expertise and expanding their knowledge and skills. 

These are the main principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. Using these principles permit me to sort through and make sense of reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.



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18 responses to “Eighth Anniversary of Blog

  1. Hello, Larry.

    Congratulations on your blog anniversary! It was an honor to meet you this week, and I hope that we can continue our conversation in the future.

    As I read your last paragraph, I do have a question: what are your thoughts on some of these new schools such as Design School X or the HQ Super Schools intended to create new models of learning? Though they appear to be trying to address context, are they themselves creating a new context that may not be scalable or replicable in the future?

    Thank you,

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Beth, for the comment. Enjoyed meeting with the Johns Hopkins cohorts Monday. The small group of doctoral students in which both of us participated had fine questions. Enjoyed the discussion. As to your query about schools of the future designs being put into practice, I would guess that scalability and fidelity to the design, based on my knowledge of similar past efforts, would be difficult.

  2. Congratulations on the anniversary of your blog. I like the way you drew your principles from your years of experience in education. They are insightful and useful. I look forward to your ongoing blogging.

  3. Yes My answe to many questions is? Like yours “It depends”

    It’s what attracted me to small, self-governing schools of choice for so many years

    But each comes with a price “depending on

    Given the crisis I sense in the human relationships and democracy the last one now seems to come at too great a price.

    Keep it up Larry. I look forward to reading your blogs

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Chester Draws

    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 the tool kit of every teacher.

    This is a cop-out, sorry.

    The issue is not what tools do we have available, but what tools work reliably, which work rarely, and which are a waste of time. And which work well, but only in very specific situations.

    Golfers carry a whole range of clubs, but they use each one only in specific circumstances, and some much, much more than others. Moreover various clubs are never used by golfers (mashie-niblick anyone?).

    I argue quite firmly that teacher led, direct instruction should be the first choice of tool when introducing new material to students who are not already knowledgeable in that area. In the absence of other methods known to be successful it is shown to be the most reliable and quickest. That I might get to the same result in the end using project based instruction is not sufficient if it takes much longer and leaves people frustrated — just as using a putter down the fairway will get you to the hole in the end, but at the cost of your time and energies.

    Nor will I use student choice in my Maths classes, because my students simply do not have the knowledge to make sensible choices. They don’t even know what they don’t know.

    If you do not nail your colours to the mast on this, then you are basically letting people teach using an inappropriate tool in various situations “because every tool needs to be in the box”. No golf pro would tell a pupil “you need every club” and then not specify when — and how — each needs to be used.

    • larrycuban

      Ah, Chester, you have such confidence about the proper way to teach maths under all conditions with all children. I wish I had such faith but direct experience in classrooms and the history of teaching tilt me toward contingencies and the importance of adapting teaching approaches to the content/skills/students I have. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      • Chester Draws

        Not at all Larry. I do have confidence that some ways of teaching are utterly useless, which isn’t the same thing at all. Mostly having tried them myself, or seen others using them.

        I’m not sure why the history of teaching gives you the idea that a multitude of methodologies is the way forward. Usually as time goes by we find that we start to eliminate methods that don’t work, just as medicine has fewer techniques now than in the past, because we know that some don’t work. Sure new ones come along, but only to displace older ones.

        The history of teaching tells me that difficult to implement, time consuming techniques — like triple marking or project based instruction — end up on the dump-heap pretty quickly, to be replaced by the latest fad.

        I’m not suggesting that teachers should only teach one way, using one technique. But to refuse to disavow any techniques, on the basis that we need a range, is still a cop-out IMO.

      • larrycuban

        Fair point, you raise, Chester. Thank you for follow-up comment.

  5. E

    Dear Dr. Cuban,

    Congratulations on the 8th anniversary of your blog! I’ve recently begun to follow your blog and very much enjoy reading your posts. I particularly appreciate your highlighting historical examples of various reform efforts.

    I look forward to your continued blogging!!


  6. Grace Stell Valentine

    Hi, thank you for blogging.
    Do you have any entries about the San Diego Unified District? Thanks in advance for any links you might be able to send. San Diego real estate is so valuable, how could any superintendent resist the money? The radical reform of the late 1990s “Blueprint” was a poorly crafted attempt to destroy the credibility of teachers, employ software and one on one tech, and send the students home for the supervision and feeding parts. That was a long time ago, but the current chief of staff in San Diego was the “director of literacy” in charge of promoting that old supe’s Blueprint, and now, how the district is staffed and run. She remembered me when I was rehired last year.
    http://www.fno.org/apr02/leaderreview.html I spoke up before I knew how dangerous it was for me. Grace Stell, near the bottom of this article. I was cited by others, insignificant teacher, but the retaliation has been intense.
    The supe that picked our current COS in San Diego is very powerful, ruins lives on a regular basis, a fixer for the monied folks who had hoped Hillary would make him Sec of Ed.
    Reading helps, if you’ve written about San Diego, I fill my time between job searches reading things by credible educators about the incredible circumstances coming to bear on my profession and career.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for commenting. I have written about San Diego during the “Blueprint” years but have not followed up with any analyses of the district since then. I do not think that would be helpful but if you want to take a look at it, check out Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots. I and Mike Usdan have a chapter on San Diego in the late-90s. I wish you well.

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