Book Review                                              Page 39


Inside the Black Box of

Classroom Practice   


Change Without Reform in American Education

by Larry Cuban, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 256 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $29.95 softcover

Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice is a timely book that focuses attention on the imperative for the improved classroom practice in a tough policy environment with its emphasis on changes to structures and systems that may have little impact on the nature of interaction between teachers, students and academic content they engage.

Author Larry Cuban, a former superintendent in a suburb of Washington, D.C., before joining the faculty at Stanford, has extensive knowledge and experience in school reform initiatives over several decades.

In this book, Cuban provides a thoughtful analysis of factors that disrupt the throughline between the intent and enactment of major federal and state policy actions and initiatives and the actual work of teachers in public schools nationwide. He draws on evidence gathered from several different sources: a three-decade portrait of a high school working through technology integration shifts; the examination of national efforts to improve science education curriculum and teacher practice; and an interesting review of medical practice reform efforts and the comparison of the policy to implementation challenges.

Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice is framed around a central question: With so many structural, curricular, and cultural changes in U.S. public schools over the past century, why have classroom practices been largely stable with a modest blending of new and old teaching practices, learning contemporary classroom lessons familiar to earlier generations of school goers?

Cuban builds a convincing argument that despite unprecedented coherence on major aspects of the corporate school reform model and weighty endorsements by political leaders, policy makers, venture capitalists, major philanthropists, well-funded non-profits and think tanks, the evidence of widespread changes in teacher practice is essentially non-existent.

The author builds on the work of Seymour Sarason, who studied the complexities involved in changing the behavioral and programmatic regularities associated with long standing practices and patterns in which classroom practice is embedded. Cuban does acknowledge that some aspects of policy find their way into practice, but cautions that changes in the regularities and nature of classroom practice are slow, incremental, and often resulting from the self-willed initiative of teachers working in classrooms.

The current reality is of educators across the United States immersed in preparing for the implementation of CCSS and related assessments, building capacity to implement teacher and administrator evaluation systems, often tied to student performance measures, or working frenetically to avoid consequences associated with failure to improve academic performance. Cuban argues that inadequate attention is devoted to building capacity and providing support for teachers involved in the everyday work of improving student outcomes. He maintains that policymakers and other reform leaders have underestimated the complexity of the factors and influences that impact on teachers laboring in the nation’s classrooms to improve conditions for teaching and learning. The reality is that large scale system change will not occur as the result of waving a magic policy wand.

Throughout the book, Cuban skillfully dissects the causes for gaps between the policy and practice and pushes for more teacher voice in shaping the policy direction if there is to be greater possibility for breaking the grip of the age old paradigms that have persisted through much of public education’s existence in the United Statement He notes that teachers are generally ignored and quite often expected to support and implement policy initiatives developed by policy elites with little or no experience working in schools or possessing a foundation in the education field. While critical of some aspects of the prevailing reform movement, Cuban is reluctant to join in the “blame game” of badgering the leadership or direction of what is known as the “corporate school reform” movement. He cites shifts in how school effectiveness has changed from a focus on “inputs” to a more “outcome” driven" model; the extent to which nontraditional pools are tapped for new teachers and administrators; and the increase in choice as among the positive results of reform driven by policy elites.

Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice is a thoughtful discussion of the challenges many educators and policy makers are wrestling with at all levels in the education field. The book’s content provides useful framing on the complexities of making meaningful shifts in classroom practices needed to accelerate student performance. It is a resource for leadership development targeting both non-traditional and conventional candidates for leadership in policy and practice environments. I further recommend this book as a resource to support dialogue across the reform camps who are presently locked into “my way or the highway” positions that are not likely to build the consensus needed to lead America’s schools toward the improvements we all agree are needed.

Reviewed by Larry Leverett, executive director, Panasonic Foundation, Secaucus, N.J.


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue