Parsing “Failed” School Reforms

The non-graded school, heralded as a game-changing innovation in the 1960s is unheard of today. In the 1970s, districts adopted Mastery Teaching and materials. A decade later, the innovative curriculum was gone. Like mushrooms popping up on a lawn after a rain, these innovations appear and then in a day or two are gone. Are they “failed” innovations?

Understanding “failure” in education is unlike the multi-billion industry of “failure analysis” when engineering and psychology experts figure out why bridges collapse, airplanes crash, and a nuclear plant has a melt down. In those cases failure is clear cut: cars topple off bridges; people die in crashes, reactors emit radioactivity into the air harming both workers and nearby residents. The product has failed and the consequences in lives, money, and public confidence are evident. Analyzing and then determining why the bridge, airplane and nuclear plant failed is essential.

In these clear-cut instances of “failure,” state and federal agencies launch investigations to figure out what caused the accident. Was it mistakes made by pilots, metal fatigue in the aircraft, design flaws in the bridges, or combinations of these and many other factors?

In short, “failure analysis” invokes the protocols of scientific inquiry to find exact causes of the accident to prevent future disasters.

When it comes to school reform, however, determining whether new policies are “failures” and why they happened is much more ambiguous. In the case of education there is no clear product being sold to the public which can be assessed for whether it “worked.” Surely there are innovations designed to improve teaching, learning, and the quality of schooling that require teacher resources and organizational infrastructure to implement the reform. But when, for example, a serious, well-funded school innovation appears, receives strong reviews from teachers, parents, and policymaker and then, in a few years, becomes a blip on the edge of the radar screen or even disappears,  no official agencies investigate. If anything, yawns occur. Occasionally, someone will ask: “Whatever happened to….? It is a puzzle.

Consider Professor Madeline Hunter’s model of effective teaching.

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined effective instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s genius was to convert this model into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:


In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs. Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

But–you knew a “but” was coming–by the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, here, here, and here).

Another innovation “failure?”

Not at all. While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”} are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used these lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90-minute lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine what students learned. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there but it was still the same song.

No, the Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers taught before, during, and after the the life span of the innovation  even after the name-brand disappeared.

Maybe the definition of “failed” innovations has to be re-examined.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

10 responses to “Parsing “Failed” School Reforms

  1. Speaking of Fairhope…

    Sent from my iPad


  2. It’s a great template! It’s used across subjects and fields! I have found that even my flamenco dance instructor uses it.

  3. Karin Forssell

    I find it helpful to acknowledge that there are many different types of “failure.” Among people pushing “innovation,” the word has quite a positive connotation: “Fail fast to succeed sooner.” But some kinds of failure are dangerous, as you point out. Others are helpful, in that they help us make things better. I’ve found this article frames the differences nicely:

  4. mike g

    If “brand” dies and its core idea advances, I guess I’d call that “success.”

    Question: You’ve given some great examples in past 2 weeks, and I wonder if I’m too quick to ask about a pattern.

    1. Innovations that try to tighten up what happens in a class” (like Hunter, ISNs)…have some staying power.

    2. Innovations that simply try to get rid of an existing convention (Open classrooms, non-graded school)…perhaps have less staying power.


    If so, I can propose a mechanism! The latter group have a pleasant simplicity and elegance as ideas. The former group are detail-heavy inside-baseball, interesting only to (some) teachers and hard to convey to policymakers…

    So the practical, “direct to teacher” ideas perhaps are more sticky.

    • larrycuban

      Policy-driven reforms aimed at altering dominant patterns of teaching (e.g., project-based learning) have, as you suggest Mike, a hard time sticking although many teachers often pick and choose items on PBL checklists thus creating, over time, a hybrid version that designers of PBL wince over. For innovations that end up reinforcing dominant ways of teaching such as Madeline Hunter lessons (again, as you suggest, Mike) are stickier. The argument I make about PBL and similar potential game-changing innovations is that without structural changes (grouping practices, age-graded organization, and schedule changes), the no infrastructure is available to help those tougher changes cross the classroom threshold. Thanks for comment.

  5. I taught in a Hunter based school for a year (long term sub) in the 90s. The school had an administrator who’s job it was to go through all the lesson plans submitted by the teachers to make sure they fit the Hunter criteria. The teacher I subbed for had a file cabinet that had every day’s lesson for all the classes he taught. I would come in, pull the folder for that date, and follow the plan. I hated it. No flexibility, nothing student centered, no fun allowed. It was a bit overboard in my mind. It did help crappy teachers stay organized. I think the super strict Hunter system was a failure but I still see teachers using a modified Hunter system with success. Any rigid system is going to be a failure, experienced teachers want flexibility and want to be able to innovate, to make changes that fit the students and the times.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment, Garth, about your experience as a long-term sub in the 90s and recognition that modified MH plans can be sensible and workable.

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