Review of Larry Cuban's "Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice"


Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Editor and Senior Lecturer in the Education Department at Brown University.

Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice:  Change Without Reform in American Education

by Larry Cuban

Harvard Education Press (2013)

Larry Cuban has been a voice of reason during the past thirty years of stormy debates over school reform.   A former high school teacher, district superintendent, and now professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, he takes quantitative data into account without being hypnotized by it, doesn’t tie himself into knots with pedagogical ideology, and never confuses with policy with practice.

The titles of his books over the years tell you where his research has taken him.  When the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report sounded its alarm and inspired yet another round of reform-through-technology panaceas, Cuban added a cautionary note with Teachers and Machines:  The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920 (1986)—and when the drumbeat for computers in the classroom continued, he added Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom in 2003. My own favorites include How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990 (1993), The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (2007), and (with historian David Tyack) Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1997), a remarkably precise, concise, and evenhanded overview of what the efforts to improve K-12 education have and haven’t changed.   Today, in the age of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and now the Common Core, advocates of top-down reform (I’m looking at you, Arne Duncan, and you, too, Bill Gates) could still benefit enormously just from reading the chapter in Tinkering called “How Schools Change Reform.” 

Cuban is a meticulous historian.  Although he studies past efforts to improve schools with an eye to understanding current efforts, he never cherry-picks his evidence.  Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of his work is his appreciation of the importance of context, both broadly defined as economic, social, and political factors, and more narrowly cast as particular, even unique, circumstances within districts, schools, and classrooms.  Never doctrinaire, he is willing to revisit important questions to see whether new understandings of the past or new approaches in the present have significantly changed the game.  Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice supplies his latest update on such questions.  

Part One, “Engineering Structures to Reform Classroom Teaching,” examines why, despite all the alarmist “policy talk” and the restructuring of schooling that has resulted from it, there has been so little change in the classrooms themselves.  Like a hurricane “whipping up the waves on the surface” on the water, reformers denounce “schools [for] failing to solve national problems of economic stagnation, social instability, and the loss of character in the next generation…Among school reformers, policy elites gather at White House conferences to debate solutions, blue-ribbon commissions make recommendations, academics write papers, and media pundits including bloggers circulate proposals for action to solve the problems.  Specialists write curricula, units, and lessons.  Publishers put out instructional materials.  Action occurs.  Yet deep down on the ocean floor, life goes on, undisturbed by the roiling waters and huge waves on the surface…[C]hange and continuity unfold in regular, undisturbed patterns.”

The three case studies Cuban examines in Part One all involve new policies intended to revolutionize schooling that turned out not to be revolutionary: introducing computer technology, devising new approaches to teaching science, and imposing “test-driven accountability.”  All three efforts assumed that new tools would transform teachers’ classroom practice and result in demonstrably better learning by students.  Cuban doesn’t find total failure here—he’s too respectful of evidence for that—but he shows that the results for learning are mixed at best, with virtually no signs that what teachers do in the classroom has been transformed.

In Part Two, perhaps the most original part of the book, Cuban compares efforts to reform teaching practice to the structural changes in the clinical practice of medicine over the past half-century.  Educators who have envied the apparent autonomy and prestige accorded physicians may take a certain grim consolation from Cuban’s demonstration of how doctors are caught up in webs of regulation and bureaucracy imposed by insurance companies, government, and their own health care organizations.  Just as the fee-for-service model limits how much clinical practice can change, so the “grammar of schooling” (age-graded schools and all the structural components that accompany them) limits how much teaching practice can change. The parallels, he concedes, are not perfect, but the analogy is illuminating.

Just how illuminating becomes clear in Part Three, where Cuban aims at “Unlocking the Black Box of the Classroom.”  Here his argument depends upon the distinction between “complicated” systems and “complex” ones.  To illustrate, he says, sending a rocket to the moon is complicated:  leadership and planning are top-down; procedures are clearly delineated using the latest scientific techniques.  Helping children succeed in school, on the other hand, is complex, “filled with hundreds of moving parts… Many of the parts are human, and these players have varied expertise and independence.  Moreover, missing in such [complex] systems is a ‘mission control’ that runs all these different parts within ever-changing political, economic, and societal surroundings. The result:  constant adaptations and compromises in design and action.”  Much of the recent push for “accountability,” of course, comes from leaders, many of them from business and even the military, who assume that they are dealing with a complicated system, not a complex one, and that the way to bring order, predictability, and “success” to the system is to hold the people who “deliver” education, the teachers, “accountable” for success or failure. 

Such accountability systems, however, are simplistic.  Just as doctors need the patient’s cooperation if they are to be effective, so do teachers need the cooperation of their students.  In fact, turning “good teaching” into “successful teaching” requires not only an effective teacher, but “the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school.”  In the presence of such variables, teaching inevitably resembles, as Philip Jackson put it over 40 years ago, “the flight of the butterfly” more than “the flight of the bullet.”  Cuban quotes Jackson approvingly:  “Teaching is an opportunistic process [where] neither the teacher [nor the] student can predict with any certainty exactly what will happen next.  Plans are forever going awry and unexpected opportunities…are constantly emerging.  The seasoned teacher seizes on these opportunities and use them to [the] student’s advantage.”

Cuban has no one-size-fits-all solution, no pat answers.  He is sure that “no single way of teaching works best with all students” and could envisage situations where Ted Sizer’s “Essential Schools” approach would be the best fit, and others that call for Direct Instruction.  Unlike the “corporate” approach’s most strenuous critics, he even concedes that it has had some positive results:  the emphasis on student outcomes,  “tapping nontraditional pools for new teachers and administrators,” and increased availability of school choice, including charter schools, even though charter schools’ track record is mixed at best.  (Here he departs from Diane Ravitch, with whom he otherwise largely agrees.) 

Some things he knows for sure.  The rhetoric about settling only for “great teachers,” for instance, is largely misplaced:  “No profession—doctors, lawyers, military officers, nuclear physicists—can depend on superstars…Nor should all teachers have to be heroic.”  And schools need stability and continuity among teachers and administrators (something sadly lacking in many urban systems, where on average the superintendent’s office has a new occupant every three years).  If teachers are inclined to “dynamic conservatism,” incorporating only as much of the new as will allow them to maintain equilibrium, such “hybrid teaching,” while not “transformative,” is often quite defensible. 

So school reform is…complex.  And context matters.  Perhaps it takes a historian to point that out and to help us step back from the tsunami of data generated by the feds, the states, the districts, the think tanks, the academic researchers, and the consultants.  Information?  We’ve got plenty of it.  And we’ve got some knowledge, too.  But wisdom is a very rare commodity indeed.  Thanks to Larry Cuban for providing it.

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