The highly publicized American “Save Our Schools” March of 2011 has now morphed into Occupy DOE 2.0, a four-day protest from April 4-7, 2013 in Washington. While ostensibly billed as a protest against the policy direction of the U.S. Department of Education., it commenced with a sad spectacle of fiery rhetoric and sloganeering aimed at the so-called “Corporate Reform Agenda” and the “neo-liberal” plan to “dismantle public education.” Much to the chagrin of American “progressives,” two of the key organizers lost their cool and resorted to inflammatory and racially-insulting rhetoric.
Standing in front of the Education Department Office in downtown Washington, Miami-Dade County teacher Ceresta Smith referred to former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee—founder and CEO of the advocacy group StudentsFirst—as an “Asian bitch.” Another organizer, former teacher Shaun Johnson called teachers “meek” and urged them to start speaking up, “cracking skulls,” and losing their jobs in protest of policies they say are destroying public schools.
The Occupy DOE Rally, organized by United Opt Out National, was called to mount opposition against high-stakes testing, “corporate” education reform, and charter schools. After hearing about the racial slurs leveled at Michelle Rhee, the Rally’s star attraction, Diane Ravitch, was forced to issue an Apology and to distance herself from fiery language that was “unacceptable and intolerable.” “No one should resort to racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural slurs to express their views,” she posted on her Blog. “It is just plain wrong.”
The American Education Reform Culture War continues to rage and become an ideological conflict generating more noise than reform. Listening to Diane Ravitch or Michelle Rhee whipping up crowds, it is difficult to determine what the recent education reform initiatives have actually accomplished for students and teachers in the classroom.
A new book, entitled Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice and written by Larry Cuban, goes a long way toward providing a plausible answer. The North American classroom, he contends, is like “a black box” because it remains out of public sight and, in the idiom of the teacher, “What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.” Unlike a flight recorder, the classroom box produces little data on interactions but is assessed on the basis of so-called “outputs” (i.e., test scores, high school graduates) without ever knowing how the learning actually occurred. It’s almost impossible to find out once that teacher closes the classroom door, especially at the high school level.
Most of the public speeches at Education Reform Rallies and DOE Media Conferences is what Cuban would describe as little more than “Policy Talk.” Such blather amounts to “a form of rhetorical hyperventilating that repeatedly overstates problems and understates the difficulties of solving them.” It may be important in framing problems and mobilizing school reformers and early adopters, but the jaw-boning “seldom lays out a specific agenda or blueprint for action.” In short, “fiery words do not reform make.”(p. 14).
Larry Cuban’s book carries important lessons for school reformers of every stripe. He makes a clear distinction between the “Policy Talk” and purported “changes” that produce little if any “reform” at the school and classroom level. He’s at his best explaining the critical difference between “Policy Adoption” and “Policy Implementation” pointing out how little that is initiated ever reaches students in the classroom. Likening school reform initiatives to a “hurricane” whipping up “twenty-two foot high waves, agitating the surface of the ocean,” he observes how, on the ocean floor (the classroom) “fish and plant life go on, uninterrupted by the uproar on the wind-ravaged surface.” (pp. 15 and 187).
Cuban’s book focuses on American education reform since the 1890s and builds upon his earlier research, including insights from his brilliant 1997 offering, Tinkering Toward Utopia, co-authored with historian David Tyack. He argues that small scale reform can make an impact, such as Deborah Meier’s “project-based learning” in Harlem elementary and secondary schools, and Richard Wallace’s “teacher-centred lessons” at Schenley High School Teacher Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Cuban remains skeptical, however, about the impact of various structural reforms, in cluding new curricular standards, grade reconfigurations into K-8 or 7-12 organizational models, and even downsizing big schools. Such reforms may change teacher “routines” but they rarely change performance levels (p. 186).
Fierce rhetoric may whip up a school reform crowd, but the championed student testing systems, structural reforms, innovative teaching strategies, and technology panaceas, have — over the past four decades, met with mixed and often disappointing results. Improvement in teaching and learning continues to bedevil us. Fiery and windy rhetoric is particularly pronounced in the American public education world, and present, albeit in more muted form, in Canadian provincial education systems. Self-styled Canadian progressives like Doug Little of The Little Education Report still do their best to stoke the fires of resistance to the “Corporate School Reform Agenda” seeping into Canada.
The key questions posed by Larry Cuban in Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice apply to both the United States and Canada — and still beg for answers: With so many successive waves of structural changes and teaching innovations, why have classroom practices remained so stable over time? In spite of a modest blending of new and old teaching practices, how is it that today’s classroom lessons remain to familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?