Harvard Educational Review
  1. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

    Change Without Reform in American Education

    Larry Cuban

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013. 280 pp. $29.95.

    The early part of the twenty-first century has been marked by large structural and policy changes aimed at improving the quality of schooling in America. Yet despite decades of reform in areas such as funding, school organization, accountability, and school choice, it remains an open question as to whether these reforms have translated into meaningful changes in instructional practice and student learning. This question is at the heart of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. Through case studies, historical context, and thoughtful analysis, Larry Cuban explores why decades of structural changes have resulted in largely stable classroom practices. He examines past reforms in education as well as parallel structural reforms in medicine and discusses their impacts. Throughout the book, he marshals existing research and theory to unpack the assumptions that undergird the policy logic inherent in structural reform—namely, that changing the technical elements of schooling causes teaching practices to change, which in turn leads to improved outcomes for students—and convincingly illuminates the places in which this logic breaks down.

    Cuban organizes the book in three parts. Part I presents three policy cases and their impacts. He illustrates how “top-down regulatory, structural changes, like tidal waves, swept over schools and classrooms” (p. 20), leading to limited effect on practice in classrooms. First, he focuses on the case of a Silicon Valley high school between 1998 and 2010 to demonstrate how new technologies were incorporated and blended into preexisting instructional practices, with little actual reform in the ways in which teachers taught or students learned. The second case is a historical account of the ways in which science curricula have been restructured multiple times over the past century, each change made with the hope that classroom practices would necessarily shift accordingly and result in more and deeper student learning of scientific concepts. Yet despite decades of change, there remains tension around how best to teach science and how best to assess what students know. Finally, Cuban presents the case of test-driven accountability policy from the 1990s to the present. He demonstrates how accountability policies aim to alter both individual and organizational behavior and how they have done so—in both intended and unintended ways. This is not a new analysis, but it is illustrative of Cuban’s larger point about the pattern of structural changes aiming to “shift dramatically what teachers do in their classroom after they close the door” (p. 93). Taken together, these cases reveal both flaws in the policy logic of reform architects as well as an ignorance on their part of the complexities of schools and classrooms.

    In Part II, Cuban shifts to examine teaching alongside medicine, highlighting their similarities as “helping professions” (p. 96) that have recently undergone similar reforms in funding, technology, and accountability. By chronicling how these reforms have been experienced by both doctors and teachers, Cuban shows places of convergence in the reform landscape across seemingly disparate professions. He finds common ground in the fact that both teachers and physicians are engaged in human improvement and that their success relies on the cooperation of the individuals with whom they work. The contribution of this section, the framing of which comes from earlier work by David K. Cohen, is to situate the comparison between teachers and doctors in the context of specific top-down structural reforms, similar to those explored in Part I.

    Cuban first focuses on medicine, outlining how structural reforms have resulted in constrained autonomy for physicians yet have also influenced the ways in which physicians diagnose and treat patients. He notes that such reforms have not necessarily resulted in an overall reduction of health-care costs or an improvement in patient care. He argues that at the heart of the practice of medicine is the relationship between the doctor and patient, and he contests whether structural reforms have led to a healthier population. The connections to education in this chapter could be made more explicit, but contemporary educators will recognize the tensions Cuban describes in how doctors must respond to reforms:

    [Physicians] are enmeshed in the struggle that has been going on for decades over the worth of their intuitive judgments versus empirical evidence when uncertainty reigns and the abiding quandary of being dependent on patients for success when the metrics make the doctor wholly responsible for the outcomes. (p. 115)
    Turning back to education, Cuban discusses the structural changes in school funding practices through class-size reduction and charter schools, the introduction of instructional technologies, and the managerial use of student test scores. He reiterates that while these reforms have intensified some existing classroom practices, such as teacher-centered instruction, they have not led to meaningful shifts in how teachers teach; nor have they led to significant gains (or losses) in student achievement. The reader comes to realize here that, although teachers and doctors operate in different contexts and with different constraints, their responses to structural reforms in their professions have much in common.

    The final section of the book, “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice,” is Cuban at his finest. Here he asks why classroom practices remain largely stable in light of so much structural reform. Building on and amplifying earlier work of scholars such as David K. Cohen, Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, Richard Elmore, and Mary Kennedy, as well as his own, he answers this fundamental question by making the important distinction between complicated and complex procedures. Teaching, he argues, is complex; it is comprised of myriad moving parts and requires practitioners to respond to unpredictable factors over which they have no control. Furthermore, because teaching happens in schools, themselves complex systems with many mutual dependencies, structural changes that treat schools and teaching as if they were “complicated” problems to be solved are not likely to succeed. He returns to the structural changes around funding, curriculum, technology, and accountability discussed in parts I and II to argue how these approaches fail to change instructional practice because of centuries-old views of teaching, various forms of teacher resistance, and fundamental errors in policy makers’ thinking (including a failure to actively involve teachers beyond token representation on committees).

    While offering compelling reasons for why reforms have not succeeded as intended, Cuban has less to offer readers interested in “getting inside” the black box of instructional improvement. He suggests that policy makers meaningfully involve teachers in education reform and calls for political mobilization and active resistance from “insurgent school reformers” such as parents, teachers, administrators, and academics. He also sees promise in teacher collaboration through professional learning communities and professional development as tools for building pedagogical capital. Acknowledging a paucity of empirical evidence, he highlights individual schools where such approaches are put into practice and concludes that they are a worthwhile endeavor.

    Nonetheless, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice is a powerful statement on the disconnect between policy and instructional practice in the contemporary school reform context. While the underlying ideas may be familiar to readers of Cuban’s earlier work, it is an important stance that bears repeating, particularly in the current policy context of two new ambitious structural reforms—the Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluation systems—intended to transform education. As Cuban writes, “Implementing untested ideas systemwide once can be chalked up to policy maker error. However, putting those same untested ideas into practice after failing the first time is dumb” (p. 162). Failing to account for the analysis Cuban presents will leave us continuing to tinker around the edges, seeing change with little reform.


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Book Notes

Education, Justice, & Democracy
Edited by Danielle Allen & Rob Reich

Creating Innovators
Tony Wagner (supplementary video material produced by Robert A. Compton)

Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice
Larry Cuban

Youth Held at the Border
Lisa (Leigh) Patel