One Way or Two-Way Traffic? The Policy to Practice Street

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again” if you wish) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With federal legislation of No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015-) teaching has been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.) in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students.

The same pattern of policy aimed at standardizing practice in special education classrooms in the 1980s had teachers adapting lessons to the students they had, the contexts in which they were teaching thus producing much variation in lessons. Called “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers, social workers, police officers have an inherent discretion in dealing with clients, students, and citizens which they use daily leading to constant adapting of policy mandates. Professionals using discretion means they end up fitting the policy to the setting and the people.

Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher expertise and judgment are crucial ingredients to student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

14 responses to “One Way or Two-Way Traffic? The Policy to Practice Street

  1. Deanna Burney

    Been learning from your work Larry for many years. Seeking your wisdom here. One of Dr. Hite’s (Philadelphia superintendent)four goals is to increase the percentage of 8 year olds reading at grade level. At present, the district reports 36% of 8 year olds read at grade level. I requested the data to look at variability by school. Range is anywhere from 11 to 98%. Want to write and submit a piece for publication in our local paper highlighting this school variation that creates conversation—moving hearts and souls. I don’t want to add to the angst that teachers and school leaders feel day in and day out. I hope you can share your thoughts here. My best Deanna Burney

    Sent from my iPhone


    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Deanna. Your work as principal at Stanton Elementary in Philadelphia and later with Dick Elmore in the 90s helped me considerably in thinking about big city schools. I thank you for your work. Now, as to the variation you uncovered about 8 year olds reading at grade level in Philadelphia schools, that is common, as you know. Making a point about it in a piece requires acknowledging the variation (which is, again as you well know, connected to kids and their families, teachers, and district office inadequacies in helping schools direct their resources to raise numbers of kids reading at grade level. You say: “I don’t want to add to the angst that teachers and school leaders feel day in and day out. I hope you can share your thoughts here.” Dumping on teachers or blaming kids’ families is of no use whatsoever. We both know that. But pointing out that the 36% who do read at grade level is an average that has outliers at both ends of the scale and focusing on that variation without blaming is one thing that can be done. A second is focusing on those schools in high poverty areas that exceed expectations (that is, go above the 36% city-wide average)–and I would expect a few to fit that category–and point out how they get more 8 year-olds to read at grade level. Perhaps other readers can suggest better strategies. I wish you well, Deanna, in writing the piece.

      • Perhaps concrete examples, if you can unearth them. “Mrs. Oublier, a 19-year-veteran teacher at Alain Locke Elementary, has unusual results…48% on grade level in a school that averages 28%. While she’s very reluctant to call attention to herself, her colleagues flock to her room to observe, because of how she changed X and Y from her earlier teaching style.”

  2. Pingback: #Truthbomb | Living the Learning Curve

  3. Excellent post. “Variation” is a key word. It suggests not merely a 2-way street, but perhaps more of a 1-way street in the other direction. If Top Down policy that doesn’t account for the wide range of *individual* teacher preferences will fail (either neutered or bastardized in most classrooms), what’s the point of making policy? Teacher choice combined with Parent choice may be a better way forward.

  4. Nancy

    The policy to practice dilemma is a long-standing one. I’m hopeful it will change along with other educational reforms. Policy decisions need to funded (e.g., training, documentation, standards, etc.) to implement them appropriately. Thanks, Larry, for pointing out this important issue. Teachers are where the boots hit the ground for the long haul. School board members come and go often for political reasons.
    Nancy, former Director of CSBA Policy Services

  5. Pingback: Larry Cuban: Why Standardizing Teaching Causes More Variation, Not Less | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. Ponderosa


    I don’t see how standardization leads to MORE variation than non-standardization. All I see here is evidence that standardization does not eliminate variation at all.

    • larrycuban

      Were I to re-write this post, I would stress that standardization does not eliminate variation, the very purpose of such policies. That standardization increases variation, well, I do not have evidence that it does. I appreciate your pointing this out. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s