Why Have Schooling and Classroom Practices Been Stable over Time? (Part 4)

Documenting that some features of both schooling and classroom practices slowly changed—as Parts 1,2,and 3 have done—is easy to do once buried teacher surveys, practitioner journals, and actual observations of both schools and lessons are recovered and examined across decades.

Changes in every school? Every teacher? At the same time? Of course not.  While the overall pattern is stability, there is evidence for intermittent, evolving shifts in schooling and classroom practice over the years. Establishing vocational education, for example, to connect the workplace to classrooms, creating special education for children with disabilities, adding kindergartens to the age-graded school, and starting Advanced Placement courses altered the geography of schooling over the past century.

Evidence of evolving changes in teaching practice is also available (e.g., from wholly large group instruction to periodic small group activities during lessons, rearranging classroom furniture, use of new technologies). I have documented these changes in classroom practices in previous blog posts.

Amid the overall pattern of stability in schooling, these few shifts in how urban, suburban, and rural teachers taught students have been recorded but seldom publicly recognized. Yes, newspapers and TV stations will do occasional pieces on new programs in schools and particular teachers who have gotten underachieving students to go on to college. The key word in the last sentence is “occasional.”

Except for national Teacher Appreciation Week and individual states and districts honoring excellent teachers, or that remarkable teacher who retires after 40 years of teaching and gets celebrated by former students—all of this remains limited and, sad to say, perfunctory. [i]

Most experienced teachers fade into anonymity after leaving the profession. The vast classroom and organizational memory they have is lost forever. Consider, for example, lesson plans stacked in classroom file drawers that get tossed when a teacher retires (when I exited teaching in the mid-1970s, I kept my lesson plans for a few years until our family moved and then I chucked them).  There are occasional memoirs of teachers who reach wide audiences but they are, again, the exception. [ii].

While there is an abundance of writing on how teachers should teach and how schools should operate, few scholars, policymakers, and practitioners have authored articles and books about what teachers do daily and how their practices show both stability and change over time.

Reasons for inattention to constancy and change in practice include the unmentioned fact that teachers in their separate classrooms are both isolated and insulated from one another within age-graded schools. This traditional way of organizing schools reduces chances for team-teaching and intra-grade or cross-grade collaboration among teachers. Subject specialization in secondary schools and departmental organization also bolster separation of teachers from one another. All of these reasons make it difficult for scholars but especially practitioners to write about their work for parents and voters.

Beyond structural reasons, there are societal ones that help explain limited public knowledge of stability and change in teaching. For the most part, each generation of parents and voters take teaching for granted because of their limited slice of experience (12-plus years as children and youth) and the sheer steadiness of the century-old age-graded structure of schooling in which classroom lessons are taught.

Then there is–let me be blunt here—the low-to-modest respect that teachers get in the U.S. (compared to other professions). Except for increases in public admiration during and after the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic, historically teachers have scored low on societal appreciation (and in salaries) for their daily work. [iii]

Part of this matter of respect is linked to the lack of pizazz that slow changes in schooling attract from its patrons.  In a society driven by constant innovation, 24/7 news channels, endless entertainment, televised sports, and the incandescent lure of financial success, schooling and teaching are yawn producers. All of this comes to mind in explaining why so little public and scholarly attention is paid to changes that occur amid overall stability in schooling and teaching practices.

Sure, when district services are reduced and budgets are cut schools policymakers and administrators pitch schools to the public as crucial to maintaining democracy. But the fact remains that schools are part of the background, not the foreground of American institutional interest except for those occasions when controversies seize schools (e.g., teaching the theory of evolution in the 1920s, religious prayer in schools in the 1950s, and more recently the uproar stirred up over teacher lessons on slavery and racism).

Given these multiple factors for inattention to both change and constancy in schooling and classroom practice, I offer in the following posts some answers to the unasked question: why have basic patterns of classroom teaching been durable over time?[v]


[i] Wikipedia, “List of Teachers’ Day,” last edited October 5, 2021 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Teachers%27_Days

[ii] Jesse Stuart, The Thread That Runs So True (New York: Touchstone, 1950); Frank McCourt, Teacher Man: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2005); Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons from a Small School in Harlem (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002).

[iii]John Anderer, “Unsung Heroes: 80% Of Parents Have New Respect For Teachers Thanks To Coronavirus Quarantine,” May 1, 2020, Study Finds at: https://www.studyfinds.org/unsung-heroes-80-of-parents-have-new-respect-for-teachers-thanks-to-coronavirus-quarantine/

PDK Poll of Public Attitudes Toward Public Schools, “Frustration in the Schools,” September 2019.

[iv]Adam Laats, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010); Wikipedia, “School Prayer in the United States,” last edited September 19,2021 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_prayer_in_the_United_States

Steven Sawchuk, “What is Critical Race Theory and Why Is It under Attack?” Education Week, May 18, 2021.

[v] I am indebted to the work of sociologist Dan Lortie in his classic work Schoolteacher (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975). Nearly a half-century ago, Lortie, using 94 interviews with secondary and elementary school teachers in the Boston metropolitan area and a survey of 6500 teachers in Dade County (FLA), captured the nature of teaching, the sentiments of teachers, and the overall structures and processes that shaped the daily work of classroom teachers. For anyone investigating the influence of structures on teaching and the sentiments teachers have about children and learning, reading Schoolteacher is a beginning point.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Why Have Schooling and Classroom Practices Been Stable over Time? (Part 4)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry–your point that as teachers retire they just fade away is well taken. My own school has seen a number of retirements over the last five years, and those decades of experience are fondly remembered but ae gone. I wonder if more emphasis was given to building a document of retiring teachers’ experiences, thoughts, and “how to do this” recommendations. This would provide continuity for individual schools and become a template for new teachers. In baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals have such a thing in the form of a document originated by George Kissel (d. 2008) called “The Cardinal Way” that all minor league players in their system are taught.

  2. conniegoddard

    As a long-time admirer of your work and a frequent reader of these posts, a further not just to this but the piece you did a few days ago on why kindergartens became a reform that lasted. Might the same be said of industrial ed and (now) CTE? In your 1982 contribution to the Kantor and Tyack book, you questioned why Smith-Hughes/Perkins continued to be funded when — according to some historians — such ed failed to meet expectations. Might it be that the public, the consumers of such education, felt that it did what it was intended to do and thus, through their legislators, supported it?

    • larrycuban

      Connie,
      If I recall accurately the article I wrote that you refer to, I made the point that much education legislation at the federal level is symbolic (even as laws authorize large sums of money). I believe that was the case with voc ed laws. So I agree with your comment.

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