Confessing Mistakes Is Very Hard To Do: I Tried To Link Changing School Structures to Improve Classroom Practice

Economist Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006), presided over decades of economic prosperity and recession believing that a market-based economy needed little government regulation. When “irrational exuberance” occurred, the structure of market forces would correct economic bubbles, he and gazillions of fellow economists believed. Not so for the Great Recession of 2008. Triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle, the international banking, credit, and financial institutions froze thereby losing trillions of dollars of wealth in the blink of an eye.

Greenspan testified before a U.S. Congressional committee and admitted that he had erred in believing that self-correcting market structures and federal regulations were enough to avert a major recession. That kind of after-the-fact admission of error is rare among economists and, I might add, educational reformers.

I have a far less dramatic and consequential mistake to confess. As an ardent public school reformer in classrooms, schools, and districts, I believed that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new ways to govern district and school sites; restructuring high schools into academies) would lead to better classroom instruction. After teaching for nearly 15 years, I had concluded that such new structures would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better. That was my theory of action for many years. I was wrong.

I slowly began to revise that belief as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices during and after flurries of school reform in the districts in which I taught. Then after I left the classroom and began researching how teachers have taught in the early 20th century and, later, during the standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century, I, like others, grew skeptical of the power of structures to change teaching practices.

Still, the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures. Why? Because reform-driven policymakers concern themselves with scale. Changing one child at a time, changing one teacher at a time, changing one school at a time is incredibly inefficient when there are limited resources. While it is steady work, it is slow and has to adapt to differences across and within thousands of school districts.

So changing many students, teachers, and schools introduces economies of scale and efficiencies. Thus, policymakers marry the creation of structures to scaled-up reforms that, they believe, will alter traditional classroom practices. In the DNA of policymakers, this belief in structures causing classroom changes is especially salient since over the past few decades showers of research studies from value-added assessments to twins in different classrooms reaffirm the importance of teacher knowledge, skills, and experience in shaping students’ academic achievement and behavior. The prevalent belief even after the Covid-19 pandemic and nearly total shutdown of schools persistes that correct structures will steer changes in classroom practice.

So when policymakers advocate portfolios of schools in urban districts, Common Core standards, small high schools, and deploying 1:1 laptops in every classroom, they believe in their heart of hearts that these major changes will work. Best of all, such scaled-up changes are visible to both parents and voters, evoking images of muscular reform with potential payoff in longer tenure in office.

Because many policymakers today believe that visible structures will eventually revamp classroom practice, they tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running schools (e.g., New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago,and Boston). Federal and state policymakers have championed new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for raising students’ test scores. Denver, Washington, D.C. and other cities have negotiated contracts with unions to install these new salary schedules. And, of course, policymakers beat the drums loudly for new structures to expand the supply of schools (e.g., charters and magnets) from which parents can choose. They point to New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles as stellar examples of districts with portfolios of choice among schools.

Entrepreneurial policymakers believe that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their practice and, thereby, improving student achievement. Yet my research and that of others deny the linkages between popular reform-driven structures and teaching practice.

Like others, who have seen structural reforms come and go, I have concluded from my experience and research that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, knowledge, and skills within classrooms and schools—not big-ticket structural changes in districts—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Of course, this is slow-motion Mom-and-Pop-store-one-school-at-a-time work that policymakers, eager for efficient supermarket models and swift implementation, find this too costly and inefficient; such granular changes are too hard to swallow when across-the-board reform–getting more bang (e.g., higher test scores) out of the buck–is their gold standard.

Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to focusing on school and classroom practices one school at a time, however, will be most difficult, even when policies fail and when studies contradict policymakers’ beliefs. Besides, there there has been a long history of such results being ignored. Yes, it is very hard to admit error.

Alan Greenspan’s public confession of error—he admitted that he rejected fellow economists’ warnings of the dangerous housing bubble–remains uncommon. Few national and state educational policymakers have neither questioned their underlying beliefs nor unvarnished enthusiasm for current or past structures altering classroom practices. Finally, few have ever admitted that they were mistaken.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Confessing Mistakes Is Very Hard To Do: I Tried To Link Changing School Structures to Improve Classroom Practice

  1. Raaj Aggarwal

    Hello Larry

    As someone who’s starting to read about school reform literature, I’d like to entertain the idea that both structural reforms and “grassroots” changes matter. I agree with you that simply mandating something from above without substantial effort on enabling change within individual classrooms and teachers is doomed to disappoint. Your lasted blog you posted also pointed to the importance of reformers knowing the individual challenges and practices teachers face within their context, which I agree is vital. Yet I’ve found that structural reforms when tied to changing individual teachers and classrooms likely is the best way to conduct school reform. There’s some evidence from researchers studying how higher quality teachers and schools are designed, finding that school structures seem to enable better teaching in tandem with individual teacher development. This was what Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine found in their book “Deeper Learning,” studying a range of schools across the country, as well as TNTP’s “The Opportunity Myth” publication. The researchers at TNTP, when looking at examples for quality teaching within 5 districts, found that exemplary schools “Teachers, school leadership, and district leadership all articulated shared expectations for the kind of instruction and engagement students should have access to. There were structures in place to support and maintain that high bar.” [1] The authors then later argue for alignment of teacher assessment and curricula to common core standards.

    There’s also been a study examining the instances of quality teaching measured by standards of Authentic Intellectual Work in a sample of 62 teachers within 5 states and 5 teachers in New York Performance Consortium schools, a group of schools that uses performance assessments over NY regents exams. Unsurprisingly, they found little examples of ambitious teaching in their sample of 62 teachers, but in their sample of Consortium schools, all 5 teachers displayed impressive learning (of course tiny samples limit how much you can extrapolate). The researchers found that performance based assessments, or PBA’s, played a substantial role in the quality teaching displayed at Consoritum schools: “The PBA connection further reinforces claims that enabling contexts matter (e.g., Newmann et al., 1996). PBA schools were consciously engineered to facilitate authentic pedagogy through their assessment design and through features such as a focused in-depth curriculum, continuous peer dialogue about challenging instruction, and, in some schools, numerous elective courses, small class sizes, and team teaching. Although adoption of some of the features seen in PBA schools may be difficult for large numbers of schools, an institutional focus on a shared purpose of authentic intellectual challenge is an important and attainable baseline goal.” [2]

    In each one of these examples, the researchers found that not only did structures matter, but articulate how the beliefs of teachers and their professional development, culture, and practices also made a substantial influence. It seems that both aspects can synergize, yet this is only correlational evidence. What are your thoughts?

    [1] TNTP. (2018). The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It. https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP_The-Opportunity-Myth_Web.pdf

    [2] John W. Saye, Jeremy Stoddard, David M. Gerwin, Andrea S. Libresco & Lamont E. Maddox (2018) Authentic pedagogy: examining intellectual challenge in social studies classrooms, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 50:6, 865-884, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2018.1473496

    • larrycuban

      I missed reading some of the studies you cite, Raaj. I will look at them and reconsider what I have written. I have looked at the Mehta and Fine book (and have written about it in my blog). Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Ted Lobman

    Voters punish politicians for humility and reward oversimplification and certainty in policy discussions.

  3. I appreciated this blog. I would love to hear more about things you’ve changed your mind about over the years. Also, here’s a question for you: How important do you think it is for education-related policy makers or administrators (e.g. principals) to have been classroom teachers first?

    Thank you for these blogs.

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