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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Do Teachers Teach Now (Part 3)

See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As I pointed out in earlier posts, I am trying to tie down how American teachers taught between 2005-2020 prior to the pandemic. Subsequent posts will take up the fragmentary evidence of how teachers have taught during the pandemic. In Part 2, I began looking at the small number of surveys and meta-analyses of studies of teacher instruction published since 2005. In this final part, I summarize another of those studies.

2. Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

In the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation (2001) that called for U.S. schools and teachers to embrace state and subject matter curriculum standards in math and science in order to get U.S. students to reach higher levels of academic achievement, McREL did a meta-analysis of 113 studies that met their research criteria on the impact of curriculum standards upon teacher instruction and student achievement in math and science.[i]

For example, McREL wanted to find out whether teachers adopted the recommended teaching practices of the inquiry-driven and student-friendly curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of Math after the passage of the federally funded and state implemented No Child Left Behind law. NCTM standards aimed to shift the direction of math teaching in the nation from traditional teacher-directed math instruction that focused on memorizing rules and applying them to a curriculum that encouraged students to question and analyze math operations, explain their answers, and understand basic math concepts

MCREL researchers concluded that:

Standards-based curricula can change teacher instruction, although eight of the 15 studies presented mixed results on this outcome. Positive findings indicated that standards-based curricula can motivate and help teachers to change their pedagogy so it more closely reflects the recommendations of the NCTM. Teachers using these curricula were more likely to have students explain their answers, allow for multiple solutions to problems, incorporate more problem solving activities into their classrooms, use more pair work and spend less class time on presentation and whole group work than teachers using traditional curricula.

On the other hand, a notable finding is that many teachers expressed knowledge about NCTM-oriented practices but struggled with using them in their classroom. Some teachers also said that they experienced more stress and increased preparation time when implementing standards and standards-based curricula, compared with traditional curricula. Finally, implementation of a standards-based curriculum alone did not influence changes in teachers’ instruction unless student assessments and textbooks were aligned with that curriculum — indicating that systemic support is important for changing pedagogical practice. [ii]

As with previous curriculum standards since the 1980s, NCTM standards of the early aughts, working within the federally-driven framework of No Child Left Behind, depended wholly on how districts and schools built structures that would guide and help teachers to implement the standards partially, moderately, or completely.

Again and again as established before in many other studies of teaching, McREL’s review of districts putting into practice new math standards re-states the truism that top-down policies as to what teachers should teach, be it content or skills, produces great variation in classrooms when teachers put such policies into practice. Under certain conditions, top-down policies can reshape instruction but in most instances is (and has been) ragged, too often falling short of getting into classroom lessons as the designers intended. [iii]

Why does this pattern keep reappearing?

Again and again, such studies repeat the refrain that insufficient thought and resources (e.g., time, money, and teacher participation) were committed to helping teachers understand the new standards and build structures that would help teachers think through and devise practices to put the new knowledge and skills into classroom lessons.

Again and again, policymakers too often view teachers as technicians using a manual who put into practice what others have designed. The historical evidence is overwhelming in this regard.

Again and again….


[i] Patricia Lauer, et. al., “The Influence of Standards on K-12 Teaching and Student Learning: A Research Synthesis,” August 2005, Mid-Continent Regional Laboratory. For this summary, I will only focus on the math curriculum standards.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[iii] See David Cohen and Heather Hill,”Instructional Policy and Classroom Performance: The Mathematics Reform in California,” (Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1998).

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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-...