Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Guiding Principles for School Reform and Classroom Practice

Wednesday August 16, 2017

Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University, Larry Cuban, offers the principles that have guided his thinking and actions as a practitioner, scholar, and blogger about teaching, learning, and school reform. Professor Cuban has published extensively on the history of curriculum and teaching, educational leadership, school reform and the uses of technology in classrooms. This article was originally published on the 8th anniversary of his blog School Reform and Classroom Practice and is reprinted with permission.

My Guiding Principles
From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. 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 impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. I prize both experience- and research-produced knowledge. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Although public schools are essentially conservative institutions committed to reinforce and pass on sanctioned knowledge and community values, they do change and have done so for decades. Schools are not fossils preserved in amber. Both change and stability mark the history of tax-supported public schools. They are “dynamically conservative” institutions that embrace change to maintain stability.

Change comes from both outside and inside schooling. Basically, public schools are political institutions totally dependent upon taxpayers and voters and therefore vulnerable to social and economic gusts of reform that blow across the nation. Those winds of reform, however, lose force as they settle into these conservative institutions. Administrators and teachers adapt organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional reforms and alter them as they move across classrooms.

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, reform-driven policymakers, donors, and researchers who try to alter the how and what of teaching. Common Core State Standards, adding Computer Science and coding to the curriculum, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar inventions spill forth from local, state, and federal policymakers. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction, “personalized learning”) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to dramatically alter 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 the 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 what they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities and the discretion that teachers exercise 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., influences what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this grammar of schooling in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons in separate classrooms covering chunks of the required curriculum for that grade or subject. 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 by designers. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers regularly do daily. I include new content and ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been deep 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 a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering dramatically classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes using their existing expertise and expanding their knowledge and skills.

These are the main principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. Using these principles permit me to sort through and make sense of reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.

Larry Cuban

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