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How Will COVID-19 Impact School Reform Movements?

It turns out emergency remote instruction is far from new. Back in 1937, when a polio outbreak plagued the U.S., Chicago Public Schools produced lessons that were broadcast on local radio stations.

The system helped keep students learning during a three-week shut-down. But it didn’t lead to a revolution in radio teaching. Will things be different now in a health crisis that is longer, and the technology of the internet and iPads and smartphones are more robust?

Questions about what we can learn from the history of education are familiar to Larry Cuban, a longtime education historian and school reformer. He looks back over nearly a century of change in his new book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

The book is part history, part memoir, as Cuban looks back over his career and the various reform movements he was part of, and offers some reflections and thoughts on where things might go after this current period of disruption.

Cuban is an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. He started his career teaching high school social studies for 14 years. At one point he directed a teacher-education program that prepared returning Peace Corp volunteers to teach in inner-city schools. And for 7 years he served as a district superintendent of schools for Arlington County Public Schools outside of Washington, D.C. Over the years he’s weighed in on big issues in school reform in books and on his blog, which has the straightforward title: “Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.

EdSurge connected with Cuban last week to ask about whether he thinks online education is here to stay in schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

EdSurge: I’m curious about your book’s title, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” What are you confessing?

Larry Cuban: It comes from a turn-of-the-20th-century reformer who was a progressive, and he wrote a book, “Confessions of a Reformer” [by Frederic C. Howe]. … I was very taken with that book because as a progressive reformer, [Howe] was very active and made substantial contributions in the early 20th century to progressive thought and actions—particularly across different states. And what he confessed to was that, ’Hey, this is a much bigger, more complex thing than I ever thought it was.’ That’s one of the confessions I make in my book. Schooling is intricate, and very complex. And when I say schooling, I mean the governance, the organization and the curriculum and the actual teaching, all of that together is far more complex than most people think.

I spend a lot of time trying to unravel that complexity because everyone has been a student once, and they think schooling is not that complex.

You note at one point in the book that you’re a “scarred” school reformer, and I’m curious what that, what those scars are. What does that mean?

As I moved through the different phases of my career—as a teacher, a school site administrator, as a district administrator and then as a professor—I had to give up certain ideas that I thought were terrific, but I saw that they didn’t materialize, or they had what I would call unanticipated consequences that were perverse.

[For instance,] while I continue to believe it’s important that teachers develop their own curriculum, I don’t think that that’s a panacea, as I used to. And I used to think that you change the school and then that will make the difference in a district and a state and a nation. And while I still think that’s very important—whole school reform—it’s not the answer I once thought it was. I’ve gone through these phases, and that’s where the scars accumulate.

What is your advice to a reformer just starting out today?

The first thing I would say is teach. You have to be able to have had the experience of being the teacher if what you are seeking is to alter teaching.

There are many policy makers who have not taught a day in their lives. The closest they came to classrooms were to sit behind desks and face teachers. I add a shaker full of salt to anything such a policymaker recommends about teaching because they have never experienced it.

What do you see as the legacy of COVID 19 in various school reform efforts, and where do you think things go from here?

I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was. I think basically schooling has much more stability than change in it. And that’s the historian’s point of view.

There have been changes in schooling over the last century, but stability has been dominant from my point of view. And I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of stability. I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want is a return to face-to-face teaching and to let the teachers teach the lessons that they had before school closures. Let them do what they do best.

As for those that say that online instruction will be the next big reform, I don’t accept that. I think I think [emergency] remote instruction is now part of the toolkit for administrators and teachers, when things shut down—there are gonna be other shutdowns. That’s about all.

Listen to the full conversation on the EdSurge Podcast.


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