In the 1990s, Las Montanas High School (a fictional name for a real place) throbbed with excitement over technological advances in California’s Silicon Valley, where it was located. Forty-four percent of the students came from low-income families, but the school’s administrators and teachers vowed to override that handicap by turning the school into a high-tech magnet with a strong interdisciplinary focus.
They envisioned students learning by doing projects, and thus understanding more than ever before. Ten computer labs were scattered throughout the campus. When Stanford University scholar Larry Cuban and two of his graduate students spent the 1998-99 school year there, the desire for change was evident.
Cuban is a former Arlington County school superintendent who defected to academia. He has spent decades examining the allegedly game-changing reforms that have swept classrooms during the past 150 years. In nearly every case, their effects have proven to be as ephemeral as the frequent solutions given me for my horrid slice in golf.
When Cuban revisited Las Montanas 10 years later to see what had changed, the answer was not much. Teachers used more electronic devices for administrative and instructional tasks, but teaching was still mostly lecture, discussion and homework. The Internet’s impact was shallow. “The underlying pattern of instruction,” Cuban concluded, “had largely remained teacher-centered.”
Those of us arguing about the latest reforms — rating teachers by student test scores, switching to the Common Core standards, opening more charter schools — should read Cuban’s masterful book, “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.” He listens and watches quietly in classrooms. He sifts through the research. Then he reveals how little the reforms have added, no matter what their promoters or critics say about them.
“Those who still dream of engineering classrooms into mechanisms where empirically derived prescriptions help teachers become effective have failed to grasp that inside the black box of daily teaching is a mix of artistry, science and uncertainty,” Cuban says. And, he says, we don’t know what to do with it.
The book is full of surprises and wise insights. Cuban identifies what he considers three positive outcomes of the past three decades of reforms, inspired by the view that schools should follow business practices. They are:
1.“Hastening the shift from defining school effectiveness as the level of resources that go into schooling children and youth to exclusive concentration on outcomes.” We stopped judging schools by how much they spent per student and how credentialed their teachers were and started looking at test scores and graduation rates. This hurt trust in teachers. Cuban says on balance it was better to focus on what schools were doing to raise student performance.
2. “Tapping nontraditional pools for new teachers and administrators.” Alternative routes to teaching and supervising were provided by mid-career programs and intensive college recruitment, giving university education schools some competition.
3. “Increasing parental choice of public schools — charters, magnets and portfolios of options.” This has a downside, he says. The new competition does not appear to have improved regular schools. But dissatisfied parents now have choices that don’t require them to pay tuition.
Cuban sees hope in the growth of schools that emphasize teacher creativity and collaboration. As always, he warns that those of us who think we know how to fix the black box of classroom learning just haven’t been paying attention.