Why Is Incremental Change in Schooling Typical?

The short answer is that conservatism is built into the purpose of schools and both teachers and students share that innate conservatism–at first.

Tax-supported public schools have two purposes. The first is to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:


Teachers are agents of that conservatism insofar as they have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece=by-piece. Incrementally. You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.

And then there are the students and what they expect of their teachers.

Beginning in kindergarten (or preschool), over the years students develop views of what a “good” teacher (and teaching) are. By the time, students are in high school, they have implicit models in their heads of who “good” teachers are and what they do in organizing and teaching a class.

By “good” high school teacher, for example, most students mean one who mostly leads a teacher-centered, subject-driven academic class. The opposite of “good” is “bad.” For students meeting teachers for the first time, “bad” means the teacher tries to be friends with students, uses techniques (e.g., abandoning the textbook, peer grading of quizzes) that are seldom used by other “good” teachers. They tolerate student misbehavior and students ignoring what they say. In short, “bad” teachers cannot maintain minimum order in the classroom.

None of this is to mean that students’ pictures of “good” teachers are correct. Only that students already have images of what they believe is institutionally “good” for them.

So if a novice teacher (or veteran who transfer to a different school) believes that students have blank slates when they meet each other for the first time, they are whistling the wrong tune. Let me give examples of student expectations of teachers that I have encountered over the years.

*”Good” teachers know more facts and concepts than students do about the subject.

*”Good” teachers answer student questions clearly and correctly.

*”Good” teachers take time to explain complicated content.

*”Good” teachers do not publicly humiliate students.

*”Good” teachers assign homework from the text.

*”Good” teachers clamp down on late-comers to class

*”Good” teachers break up fights between students and protect weak students from being bullied.

*”Good” teachers do not permit students to copy from one another when expecting each student to do his or her work.

*”Good” teachers do not let students sleep in class.

For novices and veterans new to a school to ignore what students have learned about teachers for many years sitting in classrooms is ultimately condescending since teachers are dismissing important student beliefs and knowledge. It also makes much harder the long-term task of developing strong relationships with the class as a whole and individual students–both essential for learning to occur.

There is a catch, however, when new and veteran teachers meet student expectations.

To do only what students expect is to be trapped by their traditional expectations of what a “good” teacher is. The tightrope act teachers have to negotiate is to initially meet what students expect–“good” teaching–then move beyond those beliefs to begin reshaping their expectations of “good” teaching to appreciate and learn from a far larger repertoire of classroom approaches and develop the personal relationships essential for learning to occur.

So here it is. One of the school’s purposes is to conserve what’s deemed best in a community. Teachers (and principals), socialized as students for nearly two decades and now working in schools adopts a conservative stance toward top-down policies aimed at altering what they do daily in classrooms. They have learned to adapt such policies to fit their beliefs and students they have. And students? Like their teachers, they have learned to expect certain things in what they perceive as “good” teachers. The astute and mindful teacher will know what those expectations are and, in time, transcend them slowly in small bite-sized chunks, i.e., incrementalism..

Knowing the inherent conservatism of schools, its teachers and students helps to explain how new technologies over time get harnessed to familiar practices in schools. How new curricula promoted to alter how teachers teach end up getting assigned as homework, appear on multiple-choice tests, and get discussed in whole-group discussions.

None of this is a criticism of schools. It is one of several observations based on decades of experience in schools and much research in classrooms. Yet this observation means that schools do, indeed, change. I have seen that over years, in a few schools and districts, incremental changes pile up and, on occasion, result in an entirely different school and district if reform-minded principals and staffs have been there for a decade or more. Absent that sense of direction, disappointment and dissatisfaction reign among well-intentioned policymakers, donors, excited reformers, and parents who point fingers at the narrow scope, slow pace, and infrequency of school changes. For me, these observations explain why incremental change is typical and often criticized as being too little and insufficient.*


*Of course, incrementalism is just as typical in other institutions. For example, arguments over small or large changes in funding health care insurance dominate Presidential debates and media now. Medicare for all without private insurance is what a few Democrat candidates for President seek. Other candidates want smaller changes such as including a public option and not the abandonment of private health insurance.



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

9 responses to “Why Is Incremental Change in Schooling Typical?

  1. Hi Larry,

    I really enjoyed your post as it came at a perfect time.

    Have you observed any trends in terms of how schools might help parents and policymakers build new mental models of “good”? I’m wrestling right now with how policy-talk is essentially reinforcing this conservative definition of “good” while simultaneously advocating for something new.

    Thank you,

    • larrycuban

      I don’t know whether I can help you in wrestling with the issue you raise, Beth, but I have observed up close schools that have expanded into practice the familiar and current definition of “good” to include children’s well-being and other progressive ideas from early 20th century. In short, these schools have gone beyond policy talk and adopted and implemented policies that have stretched contemporary definitions of “good.” Thanks for commenting.

  2. speduktr

    Anyone who has had a background in the sciences has had the scientific method drilled into their heads. Good research has harnessed the strengths in this model. The problem I see in adopting the “new” in school policy is the eagerness to thrust it on the culture without testing it on home ground. There are always teachers willing to stretch themselves out of their comfort zones to test out new ideas. Running field tests with willing participants is not only good science; it is an extremely good way to avoid a lot of push-back if the decision is to extend the policy/practice. Such a model allows for constructive criticism by the stakeholders rather than the open (or covert) rebellion too frequently associated with district initiatives announced from on high. In this sense, incrementalism is just plain good practice/science. Pilot new ideas first. Use the professional and community resources within a district to make the ideas your own.

  3. Matt Renwick

    Great points! – The 10%-20% of change at a time is doable. – Renewal happens in increments. – We have to meet people where they are at in order to move forward.

  4. Pingback: I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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