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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Do Teachers Teach Now (Part 2)

See Part 1 here.

While the dominant teaching tradition since the closing decades of the 19th century has been teacher-centered, each generation of teachers since the 1920s has adopted the vocabulary and selected activities embedded in the student-centered tradition (e.g., child-centered learning, the whole child, learning by doing; small group activities). Thus, hybrids of these traditions have appeared again and again across schools in different settings. Teacher-crafted blends of the two traditions, of course, account for the variation in practice that researchers have noted repeatedly in studies of teacher lessons.  Previous posts, then, have described each tradition and teacher shaped amalgams across urban, suburban, rural, and exurban classrooms (see Part 1).[i]

When I focus on the years since 2005 but prior to the pandemic, surveys and case studies completed in these years, few and limited as they are, largely bolster previous research on the past century of classroom practice. Patterns in teaching seldom turn on a dime.

Surveys and studies, 2005-2020

I have found three studies of teaching practices that depended upon teacher/student surveys (interviews occasionally accompanied some of these questionnaires) covering the primary grades in language arts and high school science courses and in-depth case studies of specific teachers. 

  1. Published in 2008, the researchers randomly sampled 178 primary grade teachers who taught writing. The researchers did the study because:

[R]esearchers currently have little data on what writing instruction looks like in schools. They do not have a good sense of how much students write or what they write. They also do not know how much time is devoted to writing instruction; what writing skills, processes, or knowledge are taught to students; what methods are used to teach writing; how or even if technology is part of the writing program; or whether teachers assess students’ writing progress. Without such information, it is difficult to determine what needs to be done. [ii]

What they found in this national sample of primary grade teachers who taught writing was great variability in the amount of time they taught writing and the balance between teaching discrete writing skills (basically a teacher-centered approach) and letting students write freely on topics they or the teacher chose (process writing).

Researchers concluded that:

The typical teacher placed considerable emphasis on teaching basic writing skills, as spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation skills were reportedly taught daily, with handwriting and sentence construction skills taught several times a week. The typical teacher also reported using a variety of practices common to the process writing approach. This included having students plan (at least weekly) and revise their compositions (at least several times a month), conference with and help other students with their writing (at least several times a month), share their writing with classmates (at least weekly), monitor their writing progress (at least weekly), choose their own writing topics (at least half the time), work at their own pace (at least half of the time),and use invented spellings (most of the time). (p.915)

As to the writing activities, teachers reported that primary students wrote stories (96 percent), drawing a picture and writing something to go with it (95 percent), writing letters to another person (89 percent) journal writing (86 percent), and worksheets (86 percent). [iii]

Teachers reported that most of their instruction was done in whole groups (56 percent) with 23 percent done through small group activities).[iv]

The researchers concluded that:

[W]e found that most primary grade teachers take an eclectic approach to writing instruction, combining elements from the two most common methods for teaching writing: process writing and skills instruction (although they generally place less emphasis on process writing). In addition, almost all teachers reported using most of the practices surveyed, but there was considerable variability between teachers in how often they applied each practice. [v]

[i] See, for example, Brian Rowan and Richard Correnti, “Studying Reading Instruction with Teacher Logs: Lessons  from the Study of Instructional Improvement,” Educational Researcher, 2009, 38(2), pp. 120-131

[ii] Laura Cutler and Steve Graham, “Primary Grade Writing Instruction: A National Survey,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2008, 100 (4), p. 908.

[iii]Ibid., p. 912.


[v]Ibid., 918.

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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-...