From Whence Come Ideas for Reforming Teaching Practices? by Larry Cuban

From Whence Come Ideas for Reforming Teaching Practices?

Larry Cuban

Over many years I have written about reforms aimed at classroom teachers and how they have fallen flat. Think about major past efforts–and yes, in the present moment also–to alter how teachers taught reading, math, science, and social studies. Or reform-driven decision-makers making enormous investments to get teachers to use new technologies in classroom lessons, past and present. Teachers have selectively adopted bits and pieces of these reforms and, yes, even ignored such efforts. No surprise, then, in this super-heated hothouse of reform, teachers have been called resistant, hostile, and even blamed for failed reforms.

Rather than keep reminding people that there is a long chain that extends from policymakers adopting a new reading program to that third grade teacher working with three groups in a 30-minute lesson or pecking at teachers, a mild version of blaming, for reasons why they have been selective and even closed their doors to reformers’ ideas, I would like to ask about these ideas (e.g., small high schools, better math and science curricula to engage students, everyone takes college prep course) that teachers are pressed to put into practice. Where do these ideas come from?

A quick answer is that these ideas come in response to the larger (and historical) pattern of public schools being deputized to solve national problems. For the past three decades, policy elites have drafted public schools to grow the human capital for the nation to compete globally as it shifted from an industrial-based to information-driven economy. Another answer is the influence efficiency-minded business and civic leaders in league with donors and social scientists for the past half-century who have focused on results rather than traditional educators’ usual focus on process (i.e., how something is done and learned rather than outcomes).

Yet those facts do not fully account for the persistence of particular ideas targeted at teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, skills, and actual classroom practices—e.g., teachers expecting more of all students, their learning more about math and science, implementing five-step lessons. Where do those reform ideas come from?

Here I want to suggest a commonplace observation that has a deep truth buried in it, one that while mentioned often, is tossed aside. And that is: every reformer went to kindergarten, finished elementary school, and spent six or more years in secondary schools going from classroom to classroom watching teachers teach. If I add four years of undergraduate schooling and then a year or two for a masters degree (let’s omit those reformers who spent 4-8 years in doctoral work), you have your typical reform-driven policymaker, analyst, politician, foundation officer, and CEO having sat in classrooms for nearly 20 years forming beliefs and ideas about what is good and bad teaching, how subjects should be taught, and what should be done to improve the art, craft, and science of teaching.

There is a “yet” coming and here it is. I draw from Mary Kennedy’s Inside Teaching to elaborate that “yet.”

“Yet children are not privy to the whole of teaching. They are unaware of the decisions teachers make, the plans they make, and the work they do outside class. Moreover, they are emotionally dependent upon teachers, so their interpretation is not likely to be based on a close analysis of events. Yet from those naive experiences, many durable values are formed about the nature of school subjects, how teachers and students should behave in classrooms, and what constitutes ‘good’ teaching.

“Notice that all of us share these early experiences, so the ideals that drive reformers can derive from their personal responses to their teachers…. [Thus] a complex set of beliefs and values about the nature of classroom life–both how it is and how it should be–continues to influence people’s thinking even into adulthood….(p. 14)”

From Bill Gates who went to Lakeside School (private) in Seattle and then onto Harvard before dropping out to President Barack Obama who attended public and private schools in Indonesia and then Punahou (private) in Honolulu to Diane Ravitch who went to public schools in Houston, school reformers formed ideas from observing and interacting with their teachers day-in and day-out; they hardly shed these experienced-produced beliefs about what is “good” teaching and what constitutes a “good” school when they became adults.

Sure, reformers beliefs are often stated in sophisticated language seemingly far removed from their less articulate ideas formed when sitting 10 feet away from their teachers but should those glossy phrases be stripped away, the provenance of reform ideas can be found in the daily experiences of sitting in classroom many years ago. And those ideas, as Mary Kennedy reminds us, are distorted because children are emotionally involved with their teachers and  know little about the planning, the improvisational decision-making during lessons, and work outside of school that teachers do.

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