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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: 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.

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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 publish...