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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Teaching Then and Now (Part 2)

In part 1, I laid out the rationale for a new book I am planning to write. In this post, I offer the content and format of the proposed book by asking six questions too often unasked by policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents prior to embarking on a mission to improve teaching in America’s classrooms.

1. How have public school teachers taught?

    I describe teacher-centered instruction (TCI) and student-centered instruction (SCI), the two traditions of teaching and their hybrids that became evident between 1890-1940.

    Conclusion: while hybrids of both traditions emerged in 20th century, dominant practice was TCI in planning and enactment—accepted as norm in white and Black schools throughout century; SCI and its hybrids appeared in districts and schools scattered across the U.S.

    Data will be drawn from archival sources such as teacher and student surveys, direct observations of lessons from supervisors, journalists, researchers, and other primary sources.

    2. Has public school teaching changed over time?

    I list incremental changes in teaching practices that have occurred in the 20th century such as upgrading of standards for certifying teachers’ content knowledge and classroom skills; moving from formal to informal teacher dress and classroom behavior; less corporal punishment and more non-physical options to control classroom behavior; from total reliance on whole group teaching to using small groups and independent work; from students’ rote recitations based on textbook to broader participation in discussions.

    While there have been many incremental changes in schools and classroom practice, there have been few fundamental changes except for districts adopting the age-graded school organization, court-ordered school desegregation in 1970s, and states passing charter school laws since the 1990s. Few scholars have looked at whether these governance and organizational changes modified classroom practices.

    I conclude that most 20th century teachers used combinations of different practices drawing from what they learned from other teachers, in university schools of education, research findings, and what could be used within the constraints of the age-graded school organization.

    3. Why did teaching change?

    I look at how the impact of social/political/economic movements (e.g., Progressive, civil rights, business-driven movements spilling over public schools) influenced schools’ organization and governance but had few effects upon classroom practice.

    There has also been a decided growth in knowledge about how children and youth learn. A science of teaching and learning emerged in the 1970s (e.g., Nate Gage’s work on effective teaching) and 1990s and early 2000s (e.g., psychologists’ findings on how children learn). Much of this “science of learning” was disseminated through university schools of education.

    I will also include a section on the absence of changes in curriculum and classroom practice as a result of pandemic 2020-2022

    4. How should teachers teach? Historically, the literature on teaching has been split unevenly between how teachers do teach and how they should teach.  

    I begin with late-19th century critics of TCI including early Progressives calling for “New Education” and student-centered instruction. By the mid-20th century, these reformers had been especially successful in altering kindergarten and primary grade instruction with much reduced influence in secondary schools.

    I then take up business-oriented boosters of technology since 1980s who promised that classroom practice would be transformed into individualized learning that would become standard practice.  In subsequent decades, there were sporadic eruptions of reform aimed at the “shoulds” of classroom practice especially chasing the dream that a science of learning accompanied by new technologies would get into teachers’ hands and reshape their lessons.

    And a few “shoulds” did become mainstream practices in public schools such as “developmentally appropriate” content and classroom practices in preschool and primary grades.  In secondary schools, classroom discussions and extracurricular activities became places where Progressivise-inspired practices had their largest impact.

    Yet other highly prized “shoulds” were talked about and adopted in name only but seldom implemented in classrooms (e.g., students decide what they should learn; curriculum growing out of children interests, problems; abandoning letter grades; converting traditional building architecture into open space learning pods in 1960s/70s.

    Why were these “shoulds” so hard for teachers to incorporate into classroom practice? A number of reasons come to mind: Lack of teacher agreement on the worth of these proposed changes; teacher resistance because the changes hardly dealt with the classroom problems teachers faced. In addition, historians (e.g., Lawrence Cremin, David Cohen) have argued that Progressive reformers expected too much of teachers given the age-graded organization within which they worked daily, lack of incentives, etc.

    5. How do teachers teach now?

    To answer this question I establish current patterns of teaching across K-12 classrooms in 2020s using pre- and post-pandemic national, state, and local teacher surveys, student perceptions, teacher reports, journalists articles; teacher logs, etc. 

    The answer to the question provides the lead-up to a puzzling question that will bring the book to a close.

    6. Although teaching has changed since the 1890s, why has it also remained more teacher-centered than student-centered?

    Even with demographic changes in those recruited into teaching in early to mid-20th century and those who go into teaching now—from nearly all female to increased presence of male and minority teachers—women teachers remain the majority throughout American elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, these teachers are more fully educated than peers in past decades and upon entry to teaching have far more expertise in content and skills. Yet even with those changes, the historical pattern of high teacher attrition remains stable, that is, one out of five teachers leave within five years.

    Even with these changes in teacher demography and preparation, the emergence of hybrids in classroom teaching, the decided tilt toward teacher-centered instruction rather than student-centered instruction remains.  

    Why is that?

    Here I reprise work of scholars David Cohen, Lawrence Cremin, and myself to explain the puzzling constancy in classroom practices (e.g., too much is expected of teachers in putting Progressive ideas into practice given the organizational conditions under which they teach). Thus, reformers’ demands for student-centered instruction continue to encounter implacable organizational imperatives that account in part for the dominance of teacher-centeredness among hybrid forms of teaching. 

    But this explanation is partial and needs to be expanded to include other factors that have come into play over the past century to explain both change and stability in classroom practices.

    I will include in an explanation, the following factors:

    (1) The constancy of the age-graded school organization;

    (2) Teacher beliefs on the how and what of teaching;

    (3) Popular beliefs on the how and what of teaching;

    (4) Sociologist Dan Lortie’s insight—“apprenticeship of observation” that helps to explain continuity in practice, that is, by the age of 24 teachers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand have spent at least 18 years in classrooms or 75% of their life span in schools.

    The final chapter summarizes answers to the core questions I asked and peeks around the corner to what post-pandemic classroom practices might look like.

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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-...