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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Teachers as Both the Problem and Solution to Improved Schooling: The Perpetual Paradox

Has anyone noticed that much of the blame pundits shower on teachers and unions for blocking school reform and tolerating low-performing students is usually followed by perky pay-for-performance plans, revising teacher evaluations, and other solutions wholly dependent upon teachers embracing those very changes? Framing teachers as both the problem and the solution is a tough conundrum to unravel. Teachers, however, are not the only ones to grapple with the paradox of being blamed for a problem and then be expected to turn around and solve the very same problem.


Consider medical care. Patients, insurance companies, and federal officials criticize physicians and hospitals for errors in practice and ignoring the accelerating cost of providing health care. Tough questions are asked: Which hospitals are best and worst for cardiac surgery or for treating children with cystic fibrosis? Why do doctors commit many errors (illegible handwriting on prescriptions, incomplete charts, etc.)? Should doctors get paid for how often they treat patients or how well they treat them (see here)?

In an era of rising health care costs, voter reluctance to increase taxes, holding doctors publicly and personally responsible for outcomes and containing costs have spurred market driven reforms that have swept over the practice of medicine heretofore immune to such debates. For-profit hospitals and private insurers compete for customers, magazines publish rankings of best U.S. hospitals, and insurance companies link doctors’ practices to their pay. Such instances of business-inspired reforms seek improved delivery of health care to Americans.

These market-driven solutions for health care problems—let’s call them reforms–have raised serious issues of trust between doctors and patients over the degree to which private insurance companies or physicians control medical practice. Deep concerns over doctor-patient relationships and practitioner autonomy get entangled in volatile policy debates over the quality and cost of national health care thus sharply spotlighting the contradiction of more than a million medical doctors and nearly 6,000 hospitals getting singled out as being a serious problem while looking to these very same people and institutions to remedy the health care crisis.

Public school teachers

Teachers have also been framed as both the problem and solution for low-performing students, particularly the achievement gap between white and minority students. Expanding parental choice through charter schools, advocating higher pay for administrators and teachers who can show student gains in test scores, promoting more competition among schools are only a few of the packaged ideas borrowed from the business community. This shared paradox among medical and school practitioners of being bashed and then expected to solve the problems for which they are bashed is like a virus that has infected two social institutions critical to the nation’s future. No vaccine, however, exists for this virus. And it is here to stay.

So what, if anything, can be done to ease the pinch of the paradox? Keep in mind that there is no solution to the paradox but it can be better managed.

Managing the paradox

1. Were national and state leaders to openly acknowledge that blaming teachers as a group for the ills of poor schooling and then expecting those very same awful teachers to turn around and work their hearts out to remedy those ills is simply goofy. Over 3.5 million teachers do the daily work of teaching; they teach reading, wipe noses, find lost backpacks, write recommendations, and grade tests. No online courses, charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, or any other star-crossed idea that entrepreneurial reformers design will replace them. So blaming and shaming teachers into working harder is no recipe for improved student learning. Surely, like any group of professionals, teachers have to be prodded and they have to be supported. Prodding they get a lot of; support is where these so-called leaders fall down badly.

2. De-escalating the virulent rhetoric about unions and incompetent teachers would be a reasonable first step. Lowering the noise level from 24/7 cable, the Internet, and talk radio is as hard to do as it is to get bipartisan support among Republicans and Democrats over raising the federal debt ceiling in a polarized political climate. Respect for teachers, never high in the U.S. to begin with, has unraveled even further with constant bashing. But hard as it is to ratchet down the noise level, it is not impossible. Calling out pundits and uninformed critics publicly will surely add to the cacophony but is an essential first step.

3. Move away from critics’ obsessive concentration on unions and the small number of incompetent teachers. Some readers may recall the ado over New York City’s “rubber room” where teachers accused of misconduct or with no school assignment whiled away the day reading newspapers, doing crosswords, and talking with one another. Far better, in my judgment, is a renewed focus on the structures that keep even mediocre teachers from improving. Such structures as classroom evaluation procedures, hit-and-miss professional development, daily load of students to teach, number of courses taught, and the age-graded school—all influence how teachers teach and what happens in classrooms.

None of these structural changes in of themselves, of course, can end the conundrum of blaming teachers for untoward student outcomes and then depending on them to fix the problem. But at the very least, focusing on these structures rather than blaming teachers would take a might important step toward a deeper understanding of the paradox of teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement.


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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-...