How Come Schools and Teachers Change Yet Both Remain So Familiar?*

Why has the act of teaching in public schools (including charters) that serve wealthy, middle-class and poor children looked so familiar to past generations of journalists, researchers, parents and grandparents who enter classrooms? In short, why has there been so much continuity in schools and classroom teaching over the 20th and early 21st centuries?


Surely, teaching has changed. Many classrooms now dispense with rows of desks and have students at tables and pods of desks facing one another. Laptops and tablets are prevalent in schools; teachers use the Internet for videos in lessons; students give PowerPoint presentations; teachers take immediate polls of student answers to multiple choice questions with clickers; new textbooks, some of which are online.These changes have occurred in classrooms across the nation.


Yet amid those changes, there is a commonness in the classroom furniture, the unfolding of a lesson, the activities that teachers direct students to do, and Q & A that characterizes the back-and-forth between teacher and students. How to explain that familiar continuity in schooling and teaching?

I offer two explanations:

First is the organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism.” The idea involves both continuity and change by maintaining a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools. Institutions often embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators adopt the Common Core or add new courses on critical thinking to meet business-friendly reformers’ demand for 21st century skills . Or teachers with carts of tablets in their room ask students to do Internet searches, jot down notes, take Kahoot quizzes, and use Google docs to work in teams or make PowerPoint presentations. Also teachers who create daily or weekly circles in line with popular social-emotional learning strategies so students can express what is on their minds without fear of peer laughter or adult sneers. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

However, reform-driven policymakers looking at market-driven practices (e.g., using test scores to judge teaching success) are dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools in more fundamental ways. They scorn such incremental changes and creation of hybrid teaching practices. They reject cosmetic changes. They want deeper changes that make teaching and learning effective.

Since the mid-1980s, such state and federal policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. They want schools to become productive and turn out graduates who can solve problems, think critically, and score well on standardized tests. Thus, over nearly four decades of tough curriculum standards, high stakes tests, and school accountability for student outcomes, these market-friendly reforms believe that they have made changes in teaching that matter. [ii]

Yet these business-oriented policy changes schools have pushed schools to become even more traditional in teaching practices; teachers adapt to such top-down pressures (e.g., teach more phonics; prepare students for high-stakes tests, introduce pre-calculus courses) to the contours of their classrooms. What policymakerws ignore is that their re-engineering of policies and teachers adapting practices end up reinforcing age-graded procedures and classroom activities.

In adopting reforms that policymakers and donors push to substantially alter teaching and learning, they have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance and loosening credential requirements in the 1990s and since).

No surprise, then, that policymakers and foundations treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both fear and resistance among parents, students, teachers and administrators. Schooling and teaching after these mandated policies have been put into place, then, look even more familiar than ever.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, a blending of continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers and donors lay out in their engineered and top-down designs for reform.

Which brings me to a second explanation.

The business-oriented changes that have accompanied “dynamic conservatism” are, as other critics constantly point out, incremental–although they often mean superficial–and require little substantive change in what teachers and students do daily. The reasons that changes do occur, then, is that they are easily folded into the existing “grammar of schooling.”  because of the constancy of metrics measuring success and failure in schooling. These measures such as rising test scores, higher graduation rates, lower numbers of dropouts, increased numbers of graduates admitted to higher education have been in place for nearly four decades.

The point of this post, then, is that the fundamental “grammar of schooling” remains largely untouched by the kinds of incremental changes that occur often in schools. “Dynamic conservatism” does explain many incremental changes that end up sustaining the structures of the age-graded school and keeping schools and classrooms similar in how they look and what they do.

There are school reformers, however, who have tried to alter fundamentally the “grammar of schooling” in face of the current metrics that dominate reformer vocabulary and actions. They re-define what teacher and student success mean beyond test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance. They seek a deeper learning, more ambitious teaching in classrooms.  In some schools across the nation, these reformers have altered age-graded school structures such as class schedules, the role of teachers, what students do daily, and linkages with the world outside of schoolhouse doors.

They do not ignore the dominant metrics at work in U.S. policy but they have created hybrid organizations that combine deep, even fundamental changes in student learning (and the “grammar of schooling”) while not ignoring measures that policymakers and parents want to see in black and white at the end of the school year.  Subsequent posts take up some of these schools and their efforts at re-doing the “grammar of schooling.”


*This post originally appeared August 9, 2012. I have updated the post and added and deleted portions.

[i] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). See Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990). Frederick Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

3 responses to “How Come Schools and Teachers Change Yet Both Remain So Familiar?*

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