Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

Are iPads worth it?

Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?  Maybe not, writes Peg Tyre on Take Part.

Wall Street is pouring money into education technology companies, but the enthusiasm may be cooling: Investment in education technology declined in 2011, Tyre writes.

Every new wave of technology that has been tried in classrooms—radio, television, videocassettes, desktop computers and smartboards—has ridden a wave of enthusiasm, rapid adoption and, then, brutally dashed expectations.

“First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decision makers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classoom in an email to me. “Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation [and find that it is] just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected.

While some teachers are using iPads in the classroom in effective ways, most are not, writes Tyre. And hoped-for savings may be illusory.

Adding in training, network costs and software costs, iPads cost school districts 552 percent more than textbooks, writes Lee Wilson of PCI Education on his blog. Wilson’s chart is below.


In a Broad Foundation debate, panelists ask: Which is more important, great teachers or great technology? (I guess we can’t have both.)

Common Core cartoons

Here’s my favorite from Larry Cuban’s Cartoons on Common Core Standards.

The teacher as translator

In a recent blog, Larry Cuban writes that when it comes to education, we are guided by both reason and emotion (or conviction):

We prize new knowledge derived from hard and soft sciences and their applications to life insofar as what they can do for us individually and collectively. We listen to experts. Yet every day in so many ways we pursue our beliefs, apply our values, and follow our emotions. Nothing new here except on those occasions when rationality, science, and emotions light up policy issues that touch our daily work and life.

I agree; our reasoning and our convictions keep each other in check. Too much on the reasoning end, and we forget what we’re doing this for and why it matters. We hear about “results” but not about what the results actually mean. Too much on the side of convictions, and we become isolated in our beliefs and passions, unable to convince anyone else because, after all, “everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs.”

I suspect that many if not most teachers are fired up by experiences they had in the past–good schools, bad schools, or learning they pursued on their own or with a mentor. It takes some time to sort out those experiences and understand what they mean and how they translate into one’s own practice.

One of my favorite professors made many a class session a voyage and a romp. Once he began to speak, you weren’t sure where he would take you. Somehow the forays through architecture, music, history, and words would come back to the poem that was the starting point–and there was a point to it all. Every seeming digression had its place. He did most of the talking (as I remember), and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I still remember how he would seize on certain words or lines in a poem–how he could bring out the thunder and undercolors in them.

I couldn’t teach exactly like that; I don’t think many could. It requires a particular kind of storytelling gift–a way of keeping the listeners convinced that what’s coming is important, even if they don’t know where it’s heading. It also requires an ability to bring together many subjects, convincingly, not superficially, in a short time. The “connections” were sometimes whimsical but never cavalier.

But while I could not replicate this professor’s teaching, I have taken many a hint from it. I know (this is where convictions come in) that too much sticking to the point can miss the point, and that a digression can take us closer to the truth, in many cases, than can a linear truthward march. So I have taken his lessons, but taken them slant.

The same can be said for research and what we learn from it. Rarely do we “implement” the findings without any translation whatsoever. If research suggested, for instance, that memorization of poetry was correlated with greater comprehension of it, and if one found the research sound, one would still have to decide which poetry to teach, how to require or encourage memorization, and what to do with the memorization.

So, whether it is research we are listening to, or our own experiences and beliefs, or both, we still have to do the translation work, which is the trickiest (and often the most interesting) work of all. It is closer to poetry translation than to literal and direct translation, as one has to consider form, substance, and the demands of the particular classroom.