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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Teaching Then and Now (Part 1)

Teaching has been central to my professional and personal life. I taught high school history for 14 years in public schools and 20 years as a professor at a private university. And at home, family and friends have pointed out to me in conversations when I am using my “teacher voice,” shorthand for talking as if I am an authority on the subject at hand.

For the past 40 years as a professor and researcher, I have sat in hundreds of classrooms across the country but especially in the San Francisco Bay area. Those observations and archival research into current and past classroom records of lessons, teacher self-reports, logs and diaries,and student remembrances of their teachers have become the threads from which I have woven many studies of teaching over the years.

What became clear to me in the school-based research I did was a simple fact: most researchers into classroom teaching do drive-by or occasional observations of lessons yet too often generalize what they found to most teachers at the level or subject area they researched. The small number of studies of actual lessons teachers taught, past and present, is a problem in finding out what goes on in millions of classrooms in American public schools. And knowing what actually occurs in classrooms–how teachers teach–is essential to figuring out what and how should teachers teach. In short, teaching policy has to be based on a sure-footed knowledge of what happens daily in most U.S. classrooms.

These posts are drawn from a book proposal.


For nearly a century and a half, much has been written about the quality and practice of teaching. Often preachy, sometimes critical, occasionally admiring, these books, articles, and conference papers would easily fill one empty 18-wheeler tractor-trailer. That, of course, does not include the digital ocean of material since the early 2000s. Stacked on thumb drives and laptops, they could be easily slipped inside the cab of that three-axle big rig. 

Yet the mass of written material produced by policymakers, self-styled experts on teaching, former teachers, journalists, researchers, former students, parents—I could go on but will stop here—comes from keyboards of writers who once sat at classroom desks, listened to teachers, read textbooks, and did homework. Once students, these writers formed opinions on teaching as it is, was, and what has been right and wrong about it.

Looking at these massive stacks of paper and digital literature generalizing about the familiar daily practices that today’s 3-plus million teachers engage in with over 51 million students in nearly 100,000 schools arrayed across over 13,000 school districts in the nation’s 50 states and territories, one comes away hardly surprised at the unevenness of the studies, the polarities embedded in the cache, the narrowness of the questions asked, and the broad generalizations made about how American teachers have taught over the past century and teach now. *

Only a bare sliver of all of this writing, however, covers how teachers actually taught then and now or the conditions under which daily teaching occurred across this massive decentralized system of schooling.

Why has so much been written about teaching, especially how they should teach but far less about how they taught and how they do teach today. And that is what this book is about.**

In view of how little has been written about the actual practice of teaching, why is it important to know how teachers have taught, do teach now, and the conditions–the context–under which teaching then and now occurred?

The straightforward answer is that reformers eager to move teaching to what it should be must be clear first about how U.S. teachers have actually taught and do teach today before designing ways to get teachers to teach as they ought to. If I had more space, I would repeat this last sentence and put it in capital letters.

For example, a few historians have established the fact that most teachers have embraced teacher-centered instruction in their daily lessons rather than student-centered instruction both in the past and currently. Why did that occur?***

Do teachers freely choose how to teach or are they driven by their beliefs and values about teaching and learning? What role do students play in determining how teachers teach? Do teachers teach as they were taught? Or have the organizations in which they have taught and do teach now—the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling”— shaped the character of teaching and learning.

These and other policy questions need to be answered in part or wholly with concrete data about actual classroom practices before more reforms aimed at altering instruction get launched.  Yet within that big rig trailer-load of previous literature on teaching, writers hardly asked—save for a few scholars and practitioners–these crucial questions.  Existing historical and contemporary data are missing so the above questions get answered by those who have the juiciest anecdotes, political muscle, or are willing to spend liberally (I include both policymakers and donors) to enact their visions of how schools and classrooms ought to be. ****

To get to the point where data answering realistic policy queries about what happens in classrooms can be assessed, I ask six seldom asked questions. These questions form the core of the book since each question will be a chapter. An introductory chapter will include a synthesis of the bifurcated literature (few studies of how American teachers teach overwhelmed by a deluge of accounts of how teachers should teach). The concluding chapter will summarize the main points of the book drawn from answers to these six questions and suggest what policymakers, researchers, and practitioners should keep in mind when thinking about what teaching is and what it should be, given its history, organizational conditions, and archival record.


*It is hard to generalize about how teachers teach now and in the past because of how few archival records there are and what sources exist are fragmentary given the size of the decentralized U.S. system. U.S. schools are spread across over 13,000 districts, nearly 100,000 schools employing 3.2 million teachers teaching over 51 million students (2016).

The huge repository of studies and material on teaching that fills a tractor-trailer contain few teacher lessons, descriptions of classroom teaching, teacher self-reports and diaries of classroom activities. While there have been periodic surveys of American teachers, case studies of schools and their classrooms, and reports of professional and lay observers of lessons, these are scattered across districts and state archives. In short, data are limited.

**NGRAMs of Teacher-centered instruction and student-centered instruction and how teachers should teach can be found at: [shortened url]

***There have been only a few studies over the past half-century that have described and analyzed daily classroom practice then and now. Each has distinct strengths and limitations. See, for example, Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989); John Goodlad, A Place Called School (1984); Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984), Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968), David Cohen,  “Teaching Practice; Plus ca Change” (1988); Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975).

****For a recent example of a national report commissioned by former President Donald Trump, see “The 1776 Report” at:

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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-...