Why teachers can’t reach every child: a case study

(Hadley Hoope/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
(Hadley Hoope/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Larry Cuban, a former high school teacher and superintendent who now teaches at Stanford University, posted two pieces on his School Reform and Classroom Practice blog that are unusual because they are about students whom he tried to reach but could not. The posts are poignant and speak broadly to the extraordinary problems that some students bring to school and that teachers are expected to somehow handle. I am publishing the second of Cuban’s pieces below, and you can find the first part of “Harold, William, Victor, and Me,” here.

Cuban was a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog.

 

By Larry Cuban

Neatly dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of the room and sit down. He would put aside a ruler, open a book, take out paper and begin writing. He often wrote steadily  and intensely for 10 or 15 minutes. If we were in the midst of a discussion or group work, I would quietly ease over to him and ask what he was writing. He would smile, close the book and put away the paper. Victor, you see, could not read above the fourth-grade level.

He could copy page after page of a textbook–and repeatedly did so– but did not understand what he was writing. Victor was a junior and nearly 20 years of age. His tested IQ was 63 and he had been in a special class in elementary school but had been mainstreamed since then.

High school was very different for Victor. He had learned to survive by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would get A’s in citizenship and D’s and F’s in academic achievement. What he could decipher in textbooks in his various classes, he seldom comprehended.

While he was in my class, Victor spoke out three times. In each instance what he said made sense except that it had little to do with what the rest of the class was discussing. Most of the time he would write or stare at the blackboard. His face was a mask.

Whenever the class worked independently, he would laboriously copy word-for-word paragraphs from the U.S. History text. I would talk to him. These exchanges would make him very antsy and I would break them off. Occasionally, he would want to talk and he would tell me of his church activities and how much he enjoyed sketching pictures. A few times he would let me look through his sketchbook.

Other students in the class ignored Victor. I do not recall anyone ever initiating a conversation with him. When he would speak, snickers would flit around the room. Not once did I see him talking with another student when we would pass in the halls.

Being in five classes where he was unable to read, speak, or connect to other students must have taken its toll. How much he endured, I had no way of knowing. He never permitted me to enter his private world.

Because I wrote letters and called parents of students–both those doing well and not so well–I called Victor’s mother. I pointed out to her what I had observed about his behavior and inability to understand the text, assignments, and classwork. I also told her that I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. She became angry with me and went into a heated description of Victor’s early years as one of several foster children in the family. She urged me to get him tutoring, to give him extra assignments–anything to get him to pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.

In an attempt to help Victor, I and two other of his teachers requested a conference with his foster mother. It was a disaster.

Along with the assistant principal, a counselor, teachers and mother, Victor’s social worker was present. The social worker had recommended to the mother on an earlier occasion that Victor be transferred to a vocational school or to a rehabilitation center where he could learn useful skills, where he would not have to sit for six hours a day writing out paragraphs from different texts. Victor’s mother had dismissed the suggestion and did so again. Victor, she said, could do the work if he tried harder and if his teachers tried harder.

Victor stayed in school. He received an F in my class.

Here again, I failed. I was unequipped to teach Victor how to read sufficiently to understand the text. Nor could I crack the defenses Victor had built to protect himself from people like me.

Did he learn anything from me as a person as well as from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I do not know.

Let me be clear about my teaching as perceived by others. In every school I have taught principals have judged me effective in “ability to communicate with students,” in “knowledge and skillful use of materials and techniques,” in blah, blah, blah.

Other districts and universities have invited me to teach demonstration lessons and speak to their faculties.

I have written  instructional materials, articles in professional journals and books. And they have been well received. Thus, I ask myself: if I am so effective, why are there Harolds, Williams, and Victors that I have failed to reach and teach?

I raise this question simply because I know both in my gut and in my head that there are many teachers like myself who try hard, are evaluated as highly effective, and believe deeply, very deeply, that they can make a difference in children’s and youth’s lives. But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.

“Beyond their control?”

Yes. When teachers succeed with most of their students, it is clear that what the student brings to the classroom, what the teacher possesses in knowledge and skills, and the structures of schooling in which both live are aligned sufficiently for success to occur. Teaching and learning is a complex process and, at the minimum, these three factors (and there are many more) have to be in sync for any degree of success to happen. When success with children and youth does happen, and it does, the complexity is often hidden from sight.

However, when students fail, blame is distributed among students, teachers, and the school and, in prior years, the family. Blame, however, hides the many moving parts and interactions that happen in classrooms and schools, the sheer complexity of teaching and learning in age-graded schools.

So in the case of Harold, William, and Victor, I brought limited knowledge and expertise to the table in dealing with these three students. They, in turn, brought to the very same table, strengths and limitations that made it difficult to find success in a complex organization designed for mass production of teaching and learning.

What does that last sentence mean?

Teachers did not design the age-graded high school structure for 1500-plus students that puts teachers into self-contained classrooms, mandates 45-60 minute periods of instruction and report cards every nine weeks. These structures trap students into routines that seem to work for most but not all students. These structures also trap teachers into routines as well that work for most but not all teachers.

Time, for example, is crucial since all students do not learn at the same pace. Daily school schedules seldom reflect that fact. Time is also crucial for teachers to work together for lessons and students that they share.

These and many other interacting factors led, I believe, to the conflicted relationships I had with these three students, making their learning U.S. history both superficial and doubtful.

For many observers, schooling appears easy enough when stories of teachers and students turn out to be successes (however defined). It is those instances, however, when students like Harold, William, and Victor fail that these and many other interacting factors, come together to reveal, for those who can see, the sheer complexity of schooling. It is that complexity that foils, time and again, reformers’ claims that changing curriculum, improving tests to measure curricular changes, raising the stakes in teacher evaluation, converting systems into markets where parents can choose schools, and holding both teachers and students  accountable will solve thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically improve how teachers teach and students learn.

Hasn’t happened yet.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 21