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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: The Unstoppable Search for “Successful” Teaching In U.S. Schools

In my office I have a very old textbook used for beginning teachers called Hall’s Lectures on School-Keeping. It was published in 1829. “While the class is reading,” Samuel Read Hall tells novices, “the entire attention of the teacher should be given to that exercise.” Ditto for writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and other subjects taught in one-room schoolhouses nearly two centuries ago. Why? Because “In this way, everything will be done, and done without confusion.”

Now fast-forward to 2023. Recently, a spate of books have come out named “Successful Teaching: What Every Novice Teacher Needs To Know” and “The New Art and Science of Teaching.” They offer advice to both novices and experienced teachers. The tradition of advising new and veteran teachers, then, is alive and well.

Consider “Teach Like a Champion 3.0: 63 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College,” Doug Lemov gives advice to teachers on “What To Do” in a classroom. Lemov describes a seminar featuring fifth grade teacher Bob Zimmerli getting a class of all Black students, mostly boys, to pay attention.

“One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of class in a neat tie. ‘O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,’ he says. ‘I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.’ Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. ‘So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.’ He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. ‘Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,’ Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. ‘Thank you, sir.’ ‘I appreciate it,’ he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student–‘Nice…nice’–the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.”

Were 19th century teacher Samuel Read Hall to have met Bob Zimmerli in the 2020s, he would have tipped his hat in appreciation of a “good” teacher getting students ready for the lesson.

For nearly two centuries, teachers and academics have sought to identify just those techniques, teachers use minute-after-minute that will first engage students then lead to improved performance. That quest continues today. Wannabe experts draw up lists of do’s and don’ts that teachers seeking student success should use in their classrooms. Or at least, that is what emerges from “What Makes a Great Teacher” and “Can Good Teaching Be Learned?”

What these well-intentioned efforts–these sequels to Hall’s Lectures on School-Keeping– often trip over are the many versions of “successful” teaching that have emerged over the years. Well publicized lists of what teachers should and should not do in classrooms to get students to score higher on tests, have been around for decades. The work of researchers such as Nathaniel Gage in the 1970s on “effective teaching” (PDF on research on teaching),” lists from Madeline Hunter in the 1980s on what every lesson should contain, scripts associated with Open Court reading in the 1990s, and Direct Instruction models are blood-relations of current list-making authors.

So what?

Why hassle hard working, sincere reformers such as those in Teach for America (TFA), Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Doug Lemov who are certain that with their 63 techniques or their check-lists of teachers saying and doing particular things in classrooms, students will do better on tests? I have two reasons for raising a red flag.

First, what these reformers have done is draw their findings from those urban teachers who they have identified as “successful” but then leap from those classrooms into saying that how these teachers teach should be the way all teachers teach.

Second, whether or not particular teaching practices cause student gains in test scores continues to remain unknown. How “successful” teachers are identified, how they are studied–-see what researchers say about the design and methodologies that are used (PDF truth and consequences)–-leave big holes in the argument that what they do actually causes students to learn, and not other factors (e.g., class size, teacher experience, level of poverty) that might come into play.

Stories told about “successful” teachers and the counting of what these teachers actually do in classrooms are very compelling, even persuasive at times. But such evidence remains stories and lists. They neglect systematically collected data from comparison groups of teachers and students to sufficiently pass muster as evidence of which teacher actions cause students to learn. They lack school and classroom contexts. Any lists of “successful” teacher behaviors, then, remain suspect in my mind.

Of course, none of what I say will stop ardent believers in collecting the acts of “successful” teachers, listing them in detail, and then prescribing them for all teachers to put into practice. That has been going on since 1829 and no blog post about causality in schooling will alter that habit.


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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-...