Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

End the Tyranny of the Self-Contained Classroom

By Arthur E. Wise — January 24, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read

Corrected: This story has been corrected to reflect a mistake in wording. The text in question should have read: “The cause is simple: the 19th-century ‘egg crate’ school and its key design feature, a self-contained, four-walled classroom with a fully qualified teacher for every 25 or so students (well, maybe 30 or 35, or even more in hard times).”

Conventional and unquestioned assumptions about schools, teachers, and classrooms limit educational reform and prevent educational transformation. Bill Gates, one of the leading visionaries of our time, has committed himself and his foundation to improving teaching. Yet, Gates’ proposals for change range from suggestions that would result in marginal improvement to recommendations that would actually reinforce the status quo.

His support for identifying outstanding teachers, compensating them well, and assigning a handful of extra students to them is not a bad idea. However, it represents, at best, a marginal improvement for small numbers of students. It does nothing to use the intellectual capital of outstanding teachers to reform, much less transform, schools.

Gates-sponsored research on teacher effectiveness, a topic that suffers from underinvestment, is an excellent idea. Yet, paradoxically, the proposal for value-added teacher evaluation and compensation will work only if schools do not change. Any innovation that requires a departure from the self-contained, teacher-centered classroom, including technology-facilitated learning, makes attributing the learning gains of students to individual teachers even more problematic than it already is. Gates and his foundation have underestimated—as have countless other reformers—a powerful force that is at work preventing change. And it is neither the union nor the school board nor any of the other usual suspects.

The primary force resisting change is right in front of us. Eventually, reformers of nearly every stripe—conservative, progressive, managerial, professional, or technological—hit the wall they do not see: the wall that surrounds every classroom. Time and again, reform plans do not reform, much less transform.

The cause is simple: the 19th-century “egg crate” school and its key design feature, a self-contained, four-walled classroom with a fully qualified teacher for every 25 or so students (well, maybe 30 or 35, or even more in hard times).

Continued and rigid adherence to this design reinforces the status quo, making it a tyrannical force against change.

Teachers must teach 100 percent of the time where teaching is defined as standing in front of or in proximity to 25 students. Conversely, students must be supervised 100 percent of the time by teachers, in groups of 25. Generally, teachers may not be responsible for more than 25 students, and any deviation from this arrangement requires an accommodation that adds costs.

Any activity or responsibility that takes a teacher away from the self-contained classroom requires that the school substitute another teacher. If a teacher is absent from class, then a vacuum is judged to exist and must be filled—by another fully qualified teacher. If a sufficient supply of fully qualified teachers cannot be found, the schools develop a work-around to change qualifications so that a sufficient supply of “fully qualified” teachers can be found.

Imagine student-centered schools that empower students to use technology to take charge of their own learning."

Contrast schools with other professional workplaces, where seasoned professionals and novices work together, incorporate technology into their work, see each other in action, and collaborate in ways that allow novices to contribute and to learn while senior professionals remain firmly in charge and accountable to clients for performance.

Technology has failed to transform the way schools operate. Schools have added hardware, software, courseware, and technical support, but in ways that continue the familiar forms of teaching and learning. Technology does not substitute for labor, and efforts to improve the management and deployment of human resources have generally not succeeded:

• The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was created to certify accomplished teachers who, it was anticipated, would be given opportunities to spread their expertise. Yet most report that they are, in essence, all dressed up with no place to go.

• Novices benefit from structured assistance from accomplished teachers, yet few schools provide real internships.

• School systems award tenure too easily and quickly. In most instances, the tenure decision is made by default. Principals do not have the time (or, in some cases, the expertise) to gather sufficient high-quality data to support a negative decision.

• Schools have difficulty in firing poor performers. The problem is similar to the default tenure decision. Principals cannot do it alone.

• High-quality professional-development programs must focus on the needs of specific schools and teachers to be effective, yet rarely do so.

• Scientists, engineers, managers, retired experts, and community members have difficulty in systematically offering their services to schools.

• Teacher preparation needs to include a much more substantial practical, classroom-based component than it does today, yet the traditional practice of student-teaching, which is of limited effectiveness, remains the norm.

• Hard-to-staff schools struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers, regularly hiring novices who, in most cases, are left to swim or sink on their own.

• Many talented individuals are not satisfied with the prospect of a career that requires you to learn on your own, to operate as a solo practitioner for decades, and to have no increase in influence, responsibilities, or compensation as you gain competence and experience.

Imagine out-of-the-box solutions that allow schools to address these problems, free of the tyrannical hold of conventional, self-contained classroom thinking. Imagine schools where accomplished teachers routinely earn six-figure incomes and where all career-oriented teachers can look forward to a satisfying career. Imagine schools that can responsibly and effectively use short-term teachers, part-time scientists, and community members. Imagine schools with differentiated staffs carrying out roles and responsibilities commensurate with their knowledge and skills. Imagine schools free to use cost-effective strategies to achieve instructional goals. Imagine schools free to devise human-capital strategies that achieve instructional goals at lower costs. Imagine accomplished teachers free to share their expertise with other teachers. Imagine student-centered schools that empower students to use technology to take charge of their own learning, thus actually achieving educators’ long-time vision of individualized instruction.

In most professional settings, teams made up of seasoned professionals, novice professionals, supporting personnel, and technology provide services to clients. As one example of breaking free of the divisive egg-crate model, we could define “classroom” as 150 students served by a team of professionals and others. At the cost of six fully qualified teachers, a team of 17 full-time members, led by a well-compensated, board-certified or otherwise accomplished teacher, could serve the class. Senior teachers would remain accountable for the learning of the 150 students, but many other human and technological resources would be available to help students. (“Teaching Teams,” Commentary, Sept. 29, 2004.)

The most important reason for ending the tyranny of the self-contained classroom is the student. In these challenging financial times, we have a choice. We can continue to stretch the outmoded self-contained-classroom paradigm to sizes that are unacceptable to parents, teachers, and students. But it is clear that we have reached the limit of student achievement using the old paradigm. Inevitably, the self-contained classroom means that the focus is on teaching students as a group rather than on the learning of each and every student. Schools have long promised, but generally failed to provide, “individualized instruction.”

Out of the box, teams of teachers and technology could finally deliver what each and every student needs. Our schools and our teachers could finally begin to prepare all students for the demands of the 21st century.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Out of the Box: Ending the Tyranny of the Self-Contained Classroom

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