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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: School Reform Metaphors: The Pendulum and Hurricane

Consider that a pendulum swing returns almost to the same spot it left.


Although there is motion, there is little change. Yet anyone who remembers what the mid-1980s were like and what is currently going on with schools closed during the pandemic and re-opening in the Fall knows that both schools and society have indeed gone through serious changes in the economy, technology, demography, and pandemics. So the metaphor of a school reform pendulum masks major changes in both society and schools.

Furthermore, the pendulum metaphor implies that policymaker talk about school reform is what happens in classrooms. Yet there is a huge gap between policy talk and classroom practice when it comes to school reform.

Over the last quarter-century, researchers who have gone into classrooms have concluded that there are enduring practices that teachers use in organizing a class, maintaining order, asking questions, concentrating on basic skills, using texts, and testing students. Over many decades, even as new curricula and technologies (e.g., laptops, interactive whiteboards, smart phones) enter and exit classrooms these practices, with occasional alterations, persist.

A second research finding is that policymakers can legislate changes in teacher practices all they want but teachers, once they close their classroom door, will modify only what they believe will benefit children and is consistent with their beliefs. In short, public officials–from the superintendent to the President of the United States–cannot mandate what they believe matters in a classroom. In fact, the teacher is the policy gatekeeper, not the district superintendent or board of education.

Yes, of course, some policies teachers will embrace willingly. For example, many teachers endorse moving more computers into classrooms as long as they get the help to use those machines. But policies that are suspect in teachers’ minds (e.g., evaluations and salary  based upon student test scores) or ones that are forced upon them without much regard for their opinions (e.g., a new reading program), have little staying power in classrooms. The trend, regardless of what particular fad policymakers talk about, is small modifications over time in stable teaching practices.

Does the flawed pendulum metaphor for school reform apply today? Yes, in that boosters of charter schools, new technologies, and national curriculum standards, for example, claim that these reforms will influence how teachers teach and students learn. When state and local test scores drop (or go up) critics (and boosters) leap to the conclusion that charters or pay-4-performance plans, or Common Core curricula caused those declines (or increases). Ignoring the stability in teaching practices over time or examining the test itself, class size, the impact of family background on academic performance, school reformers (both from the left and right) skip to the easy conclusion that the newest reform  caused the decline (or rise) since teachers adopted “new” practices.

So what? Suppose many school-watchers have inaccurately assumed that what public officials say is happening in schools is what teachers actually do. Suppose further that critics have also ignored the clear trend of stability in teaching practices. Such insights might deserve, at best, a yawn.  Of what importance is it, then, to the public to make these distinctions between hyped policy talk and enduring classroom practices?

First, differentiating between listening to the sizzle rather than tasting the steak is seldom applied to school reform. Policy talk, the sizzle, is important because, in a democracy, it registers what issues need to be addressed. But teaching practices, the taste of the steak, is what matters in the classroom. To improve teaching practices over time, we need to see what actually goes on in the classroom and pay less attention to pendulum-like swings in policy talk.

Second, because talk about school reform moves at a quicker pace than what happens in classrooms, it is smart to appreciate teachers for being slow in responding to calls for faddish shifts in practice. Now, that may sound un-American to savor the virtue of patience in considering an innovation but as new programs and proposals have spilled forth, it has become clear that they range from goofy to wise. Teacher deliberateness does both the public and students a favor by judging carefully the worth of any particular innovation.

As the pandemic passes. the immediate future will yield a bumper crop of school reform proposals. Watch out for the rhetoric. That is what makes headlines and one-liners for TV anchors, documentaries, and bloggers but carries little weight in determining classroom practice.

Perhaps the pendulum is the wrong image to capture the differences between reform talk and what happens in classrooms. Perhaps the metaphor of a hurricane is better. The hurricane whips up twenty-foot high waves agitating the surface of the ocean yet fathoms below the surface fish and plant life go undisturbed by the uproar on the ocean’s surface. Whichever metaphor makes sense, no longer should we confuse what public officials say schools are doing with what happens in classrooms.

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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-...