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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Competing Traditions of Teaching: An Old Story Written Anew

Everything has been said before but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and begin all over again. Andre Gide

Yes, I know that starting a post with the Gide quote makes me sound arrogant. Not my intention. I begin with these words because most people, I include entrepreneurial school reformers, academics, and practitioners, either ignore or forget past reformer-driven conflicts over changing teachers and teaching. I should add a third group: those who  already know about those battles and try to convince others that something can be learned from the past. These three groups of people, and I include myself in the last group, need to be reminded that much has been said and done to alter how teachers teach over many decades.

Today, reformers push Common Core Standards into classrooms. They champion charters and more parental choice of schools. They want teachers to be evaluated  on the basis of student test scores. Policymakers, philanthropists, and vendors send tablets to classrooms. These current reforms aim at changing how teachers teach so students can learn more, faster, and better.

Current reformers re-enact an old story.

Why old? Two traditions of teaching have competed with one another for millennia.  Each has had a grab-bag of names over the centuries: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, mimetic vs. transformational.

Each tradition has its own goals–transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings; own practices–teacher-centered vs. student-centered; and own desired outcomes–knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society vs. moral and political adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities. No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. While posing these traditions as opposites, IPhilip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers  taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the early 1990s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing peaking with No Child Left Behind in 2001. How, then, in the past two accountability-driven decades have most  teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and surveys describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I went into scores of classrooms in three cities. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms. All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both in elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and school closure threats.

On the whole, then, since the early 1990s when standards-based, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

The struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–fought over in words and policies in reading, math, science, and history for decades, turn up in classrooms in 2013 call up anew Andre Gide’s words.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...