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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Do Teachers Teach Now? (Part 1)

I have mentioned a few times that I have begun work on my next book which tries to bring together over 50 years of research on teaching in public schools. The book is organized around a series of questions of which one is the title of this post. For next few posts I will share a draft of how I will answer this question about teaching prior to and during the Covid-19 ongoing pandemic.

Answering the question is not easy in 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic has spiked repeatedly over the past two years as mutations of the virus have swept across the nation infecting millions. The World Health Organization began naming variants of the coronavirus with letters from the Greek alphabet. Now at the 15th letter, the recent Omicron mutation has spread across the globe.

Americans have become familiar with Greek letters. [i]

As each variant pops up, schools affected by temporary closures relied upon students receiving homebound lessons on computers. Inequalities in funding and operating urban and rural schools located in districts where poor parents lived prior to the pandemic became all to glaringly exposed once schools closed and then re-opened across the nation.

Many districts that had fed low-income minority students breakfast and lunch prior to Covid-19 either stopped doing so or had families come to school to pick up food. Many of these student also lacked home computers and districts distributed devices to them. [ii]

Some districts and schools stayed open during a spike in the particular mutation while taking precautions with masks, physical distancing and improved ventilation. By January 2022, nearly 90 percent of public schools were open for face-to-face instruction. So getting a clear, even crisp, answer to how teachers across 13,000-plus school districts in the U.S managed their lessons is difficult given these repeated surges of the virus and existing school inequalities.

Moreover, the lack of data on teaching practices before and during the pandemic leaves any answer wobbly. Given these limitations, I set boundaries on the years I would focus on. I decided to define current teaching as what teachers did in their classrooms in the past decade. This time span includes the years prior to and during Covid-19 through the winter of 2021-2022.

Even in this past decade, reliable and abundant descriptions of classroom lessons and surveys of teaching practices in recent years are tough to find.  Sure, there are journalists who have gone into classrooms and recorded what they saw.  And there are teachers who describe their lessons in blogs, social media, and articles. And, yes, there have been scattered and episodic surveys of teachers who reported their classroom practices. Many of these surveys, however, are suspect because they depend upon teachers volunteering self-reports that more often than not are unrepresentative of state or nation’s teacher corps. For all of these reasons, answering the question of how teachers teach, since 2010 including the pandemic remains a challenge. 

But I do not approach answering the question empty handed. Previous chapters in this book offer strong clues to an answer.

Over the past century, for example, I have documented how schools consistently depended upon the age-graded organization and how its grammar of instruction shaped to a degree how teachers taught decades ago. And then and now teachers, as other professionals, create and rely upon routines. From arranging classroom furniture, taking attendance, administering tests, assigning homework, calling on students to answer questions, organizing small group activities, and grading homework– teachers have routines. Assuredly, routines vary among teachers in the same school, but they depend upon them to traverse lessons and get through the school day.

Often these teacher-crafted routines reflect teacher beliefs about how students learn, what are the best ways of teaching different students and how much time to devote to the overwhelming amount of content and skills required by the district and state. Even though teachers within the same school vary in, say, how much time they devote to teaching reading and language arts and that variation also occurs district-wide as well, these core structures, school and classroom routines set the boundaries for teacher lessons. Thus, the history of the past century of teaching within the age-graded school and patterned routines, differ as they do among teachers, point to what was in place when Covid-19 struck in 2020.


[i] Layal Liverpool,  “Coronavirus: WHO Announces Greek Alphabet Naming Scheme for Variants,” New Scientist, June 1, 2021 at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2279063-coronavirus-who-announces-greek-alphabet-naming-scheme-for-variants/

[ii] Eliza Kinsey, et. al., “School Closures during Covid-19: Opportunities for Innovation in Meal Service,” American Journal of Public Health,  October 7, 2020 at: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305875

Benjamin Herold, “Schools Handed Out Millions of Digital Devices under Covid-19: Now, Thousands are Missing,” Education Week, July 23, 2020.

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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...