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Teaching Profession Commentary

‘Hugging the Middle’

By Larry Cuban — April 27, 2009 7 min read

After decades of school improvement efforts centered on restructuring, curriculum standards, accountability, and testing, influential voices in school reform—President Barack Obama, the philanthropist Bill Gates, and national business leaders among them—have reached a novel consensus: The classroom teacher is crucial to learning. Policy elites, it would seem, have finally caught up with the folk wisdom of parents and students.

But hammering out the details of this new consensus could create unforeseen problems. Policy debates over how to get experienced teachers into the schools that need them most and connect teachers’ salaries to student test scores will eventually, I fear, tiptoe over to the familiar, if ultimately futile, question of which ways of teaching are best in getting students to learn more, faster, and better.

Yes, I said futile. For decades, squabbles over the teaching practices that best enable students to both decode and understand the printed page, think critically, behave in class, and ring up higher scores on high-stakes tests have been useless. Invariably, faith-based ideologies built around “traditional” or “progressive” forms of teaching have trumped scientific studies.

Consider classroom practices in the midst of increased testing and tough accountability. Current reports detail how most teachers have nipped and tucked their instruction to avoid the stigma of low scores and poor state and federal ratings. They prep students for tests. They lecture more. They assign more worksheets and homework. They practice a traditional, teacher-centered version of “good” teaching.

Moreover, many of these teachers, fearing the consequences of bad test performance, have abandoned the student-centered practices of small-group learning, inquiry-based lessons, and project-based teaching.

Since test scores have risen, especially in urban elementary schools, college-prep urban academies, and programs modeled after the charter-oriented Knowledge Is Power Program, the accountability-driven move to teacher-centered practices has fortified the claim that such teaching is successful. Surely, the two are associated, but attributing gains in test scores to traditional teacher-centered practice is like attributing rises in stock prices to shorter skirt lengths—a correlation but not a cause.

To avoid reopening another useless dispute over whether memorizing multiplication tables is better than an inquiry-based approach to math, let’s try another path to make sense of how current teachers teach, one that does not include slipping into fruitless ideological bickering.

Imagine a continuum with one pole being KIPP-like public schools where teachers use direct instruction, even to the point of scripted lessons, expect students to memorize snippets of poems and speeches, and insist that they toe the line in proper behavior. At the other end of this continuum are public schools such as New York City’s Central Park East Elementary and San Diego’s High Tech High, where staff teams of teachers work closely with students in project-based learning, and build inquiry-based lessons that draw from math, science, and the arts.

These opposite poles of purist traditional and progressive teaching, however, now cater to only a tiny percentage of the nearly 100,000 schools where over 3 million teachers teach more than 50 million students. The fact is that most children attend schools in which pragmatic teachers hug the center of the continuum and draw from both ways of teaching to produce hybrid classroom practices—what I have called teacher-centered progressivism. In those tired debates between partisans of progressive and traditional teaching, however, most teachers and students who hug the middle of the continuum get ignored.

So before our newly minted advocates of the central importance of teachers blunder into another useless debate over the best way to teach children, I offer them advice in the form of two reasons why most teachers create hybrids.

First, most experienced teachers have learned through trial and error that no particular teaching approach, no matter how successful its champions say it is, yields desired outcomes with all students, all the time. Researchers have yet to show a one-size-fits-all-students pedagogy.

While there have been a few studies showing direct instruction’s impact on young students’ reading skills, results for older elementary and secondary students are contested. Even the highly touted value-added studies done in Tennessee in the 1990s correlate experience, qualifications, and teacher traits to student test scores, not how those teachers teach daily.

One point on which both seasoned classroom practitioners and researchers agree is that a teacher’s effectiveness, as measured by student outcomes, will vary by teacher knowledge and skills, class size, students’ background and age, the school setting, and other factors. In short, the setting demands different forms of teaching in order to achieve success with a diverse population of students.

The second reason most teachers create hybrids is that, because of such tough classroom settings, teachers have been (and are) unrelenting borrowers of lessons, materials, and practices they believe will help their students. Research studies have documented that pervasive practice. For example, after collecting classroom reports from nearly 10,000 lessons of teachers in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms who had taught between the 1890s and 2005, I found most elementary teachers, and a lesser number of secondary teachers, had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids of teacher-centered progressivism.

Consider grouping, for example. For decades, teachers taught 50 or more students as one group. Over time, as class size fell, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading, while the rest worked by themselves independently, slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers (but much less so among secondary school teachers).

Even among faculties committed to teacher-centered instruction, pragmatic teachers used student projects that tied together reading, math, science, and art—a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life, for example. In secondary schools, where teacher-centeredness dominated classroom instruction, such projects still appeared in vocational subjects, science, English, and social studies classes.

Why did teachers persistently blend pedagogical traditions? Spurred by compulsory-attendance laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded school with self-contained classrooms and standardized class sizes became the institutional solution for coping with masses of students arriving at the schoolhouse door.

Within the age-graded school, the classroom itself (no larger than 600 square feet a half-century ago, but now a third larger) is (and was) a crowded setting where teachers manage 25 or more students (50 to 70 students a century ago) of approximately the same age but hardly with the same interests, motivation, or prior experiences. Those students spend—depending upon grade level—from one to five hours a day in the same room with teachers. The community expects its teachers to control the classroom, teach a prescribed course of study, spur student interest in content and skills, diversify their instruction to match differences among students, and display tangible evidence that students have performed satisfactorily.

Within these demanding classroom settings, teachers have learned to ration their time and energy to cope with conflicting societal demands by using certain teaching practices that have proved, over the years, to be simple, resilient, and efficient solutions in dealing with large numbers of captive students in a small space for extended periods of time.

In short, teachers created teacher-centered progressivism to match the inherent grammar of age-graded schools and fulfill unceasing societal demands for mass education.

So what? What’s the point of describing how teachers taught then and now? With policy elites finally arriving at the conclusion that the heart of any school reform must be teachers and teaching, I anticipate the familiar drift back into futile ideological debates over which forms of teaching are better for raising student achievement. Such debates are fruitless because there is no one best way of teaching all students. Furthermore, most teachers are (and always have been) pragmatic professionals who seldom practice a pure form of either teacher-centered or student-centered instruction.

Most teachers hug the middle of the pedagogical continuum, a fact that policy elites too often neglect to consider.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Hugging The Middle’


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