How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over the Decades (Part 2)

A few years ago, Richard Elmore asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the reflections and writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011).  Both posts appeared originally in 2013. There is light editing in Part 2. Part 1 appeared a few days ago.

I used to think that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new district and school site governance structures; novel technologies; small high schools with block schedules, advisories, and student learning communities) would lead to better classroom instruction. And now I think that, at best, such structural reforms may be necessary first steps toward improving instruction but are (and have been) seldom sufficient to alter traditional teaching practices.

In teaching nearly 15 years, I had concluded that policies creating new structures (see above examples) would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better.

I revised that conclusion, albeit in slow motion, as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices. I reconsidered the supposed power of structures in changing teaching practices after I left the classroom and began years of researching how teachers have taught following the rainfall of progressive reforms on the nation’s classrooms in the early 20th century and similar showers of standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century.[i]

Still, the job of policymakers is to rely upon  structures. Their strong belief that  structural changes will alter traditional classroom practices is in the DNA of policymakers. Moreover, class size changes, national curriculum standards, small high schools, deploying 1:1 laptops, and other structural changes are visible to both patrons and participants. Such visibility suggests vigorous action in solving problems and has potential payoff in votes and longer tenure in office.

As I write, this generation of policymakers invokes that faith in visible structures. They tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running the schools. Federal and state policymakers champion new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for their success in raising students’ test scores. And, of course, they beat the drums loudly for new structures expanding the supply of schools from which parents can choose such as charters, magnets, and other publicly funded alternatives. And do not forget the founding of high-tech schools where every student has individual access to the latest devices and software. Entrepreneurial policymakers assume that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their classroom behaviors and, thereby, improve student learning.

Yet my research and that of others deny the genetic links between structures and teaching practice. Like others, I have concluded that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, building broader and deeper teacher knowledge and skills in  classroom instruction—not big-ticket structural changes—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to attending to capacity-building and classroom routines, however, will be most difficult since evidence from studies that contradict conventional policymaker wisdom has a long history of being ignored.


I used to think that the teacher was critical to student and school success. And now, I continue to think the same way. I have not changed my mind about the centrality of the teacher to student learning and school performance. The years I spent in classrooms as a teacher, the years I visited classrooms as a superintendent, and the years I studied classroom teaching have strengthened my belief in the powers teachers have in influencing their students’ minds and hearts. The tempered optimism I have today about schooling children and youth rests in this belief in teachers who have made and continue to make a difference in individual student’s lives.

That a scrum of research studies and policymaker pronouncements in the past few years have affirmed teachers’ influence in students’ academic performance and actual lives supports the faith that I and many other educators have had in teachers. Facts and faith merge nicely.

Yet the current anti-teacher union rhetoric so popular among the entrepreneurial class and the continuing condescension of so many policymakers toward career teachers who have chosen to remain in classrooms erode both faith and facts; they eat away at any gains in respect teachers accrued in the past decade.

These I-used-to-think and now-I-think reflections extracted from nearly a half-century of experience- and research-produced knowledge get at the heart of public schooling in America, especially in cities. That many (but by no means most) schools with skilled and knowledgeable teachers can promote civic, scientific, math, and other forms of literacy, preparation for college, independent decision-making, and thoughtful deliberation in children and youth is central to what schools can do in a democratic society even in the lop-sided three-tiered system of schooling (see Part 1) that perpetuates long-standing societal inequities.


[i] See How Teachers Taught, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) and Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009). Other researchers had reached a similar conclusion about reform-driven structures having little influence on classroom practices. See, for example, Richard Elmore, “Structural Reform and Educational Practice,” Educational Researcher, 24(9), 1995: pp. 23-26.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

5 responses to “How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over the Decades (Part 2)

  1. rlotan

    Dear Larry,

    The power of your ideas and words have guided me since the very first time I had the privilege to be your student. I cried after reading both Part 1 and Part 2.

    I need to share a little story with you. I am sorry I can’t put it in the comment section. It’s too personal, although I told it to various audiences, mainly teachers, in different countries – and every year to my STEP students….

    Here it is:

    While celebrating my 50th birthday I was deeply saddened. I realized that I disappointed my grandfather. He was a socialist (when socialism was real), a labor organizer, a journalist and newspaper editor who published an underground, anti-Hitler newspaper in German (!), under occupation until 1942 (!). He spent a lot of time with me while I was growing up. I credit him for being who I am today.

    And I did not bring on the revolution! I knew he had expected me to do so. And I didn’t!!!.

    After some agony, and to console myself, I realized that I did what I could in my little corner of the world: I taught, I cared, I supported my students and many teachers. I tried to make my classrooms as equitable and as just as I possibly could in an inequitable and unjust world.

    Sorry to clutter your email. I needed to share with you.

    Much love,


    Rachel Lotan, PhD
    Professor (Teaching) Emerita


  2. Pingback: Note to CLIME Community - Dynamic Math Classroom

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