For thirteen years, I have written this blog. Believing that many, if not most, educational policies made in school board meetings, superintendent suites, and principals’ offices have consequences for what happens daily in schools and classrooms, I have analyzed district policies, especially those aimed at changing what and how teachers teach. For example, district policies (e.g.,requiring students to gain financial literacy in high school economics courses, understand that race and ethnicity have been central to the American experience in U.S. history classes) are examples of value-driven policies that school boards adopt to get teachers to teach new content and skills.
After all of this writing on school reform, what tenets, what guidelines do I follow in sorting through a river of reforms that enter American schools? In short, how do I make sense of the constant flow of policy-driven reforms that come from federal, state, and local authorities? What criteria do I use to distinguish among a never-ending flow of school reform policies aimed at improving teaching and learning?
Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century and a half, I cannot offer specific rules for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to follow. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters.
So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is a fool’s errand. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet, I repeat my caution about context, need to be adapted to different settings.
These guidelines come out of over five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with what I say. These axioms steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.
- No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as boosters of Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
- Small changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in ways of teaching seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.*
- School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
- Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions such as Ann Brown‘s in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.
These axioms drawn from experience in schools and research offer me a way of sorting through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.
*The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 is a dramatic example of schools closing and a sudden shift to remote instruction. While vestiges of remote instruction will persist in many districts (most districts will say goodbye to “snow days”), the return of face-to-face instruction and familiar ways of teaching underscore the points I make here.