How Will COVID-19 Impact School Reform Movements?

It turns out that emergency remote instruction is far from new. In 1937, when polio was spreading in the United States, Chicago Public Schools produced lessons that were broadcast on local radio stations.

The system helped keep students learning during the three-week shutdown. But it did not lead to a revolution in broadcasting teaching. Will things be different now with a longer health crisis, and internet technology, iPads and smartphones more powerful?

The questions about what we can learn from the history of education are familiar to Larry Cuban, an ancient educational historian and school reformer. He takes a look at nearly a century of change in his new book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

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

Cuban is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. He began his career teaching social studies in high school for 14 years. At one point, he ran a teacher education program that prepared returning Peace Foundation volunteers to teach in inner-city schools. Over the course of 7 years, he served as the managing director of Arlington County Public Schools outside of Washington, DC. in school reform and classroom practice.

EdSurge reached out to Cuban last week to ask if 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 to know the title of your book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” What do you admit?

Larry Cuban: It comes from a turn-of-the-twentieth-century reformer who was progressive, and he wrote a book called Confessions of a Reformer [by Frederic C. Howe]. … I was greatly impressed by this book because as a progressive reformer, [Howe] She was very active and made major contributions in the early twentieth century to progressive thought and action – particularly across different nations. And what he admitted was, “Hey, this is something much bigger and more complex than I ever thought.” This is one of the confessions I make in my book. Education is very complex and complex. And when I say education, I mean governance, organization, curricula and actual teaching, all together much more complex than most people think.

I spend a lot of time trying to solve this complexity because everyone was a student once, and they think education isn’t that complicated.

I noticed at some point in the book that you’re a “scarred” school repairman, and I’m curious what those scars are. What does it mean?

As I navigated through the various stages of my career—as a teacher, a school site manager, as a district manager and then as a professor—I had to let go of some ideas that I thought were great, but saw that they didn’t materialize, or they had what I call unexpected consequences that were rotten .

[For instance,] While I still think it’s important for teachers to develop their own curriculum, I don’t think that’s a panacea, as I used to. And I thought you would change the school and then that would make a difference in a region, a country and a nation. And while I still think this is very important – overhauling the whole school – that wasn’t the answer I once thought. I went through these stages, and this is where the scars accumulate.

What’s your advice to a reformer just starting out today?

The first thing I would say is teaching. You must have experience being a teacher if what you seek is to change teaching.

There are many policy makers who have never studied in their lives. The closest they got was to sit behind desks and face the teachers. I add a shaker full of salt to whatever the policy maker recommends about teaching because they haven’t tried it before.

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

I don’t see COVID produce a lot of fixes. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume studying as it was. I think education basically has a lot more stability than change in it. This is the point of view of the historian.

There have been changes in education over the past century, but stability has been the norm in my view. And I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of stability. I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want to go back to face-to-face teaching and allow teachers to teach the lessons they had before the school closed. Let them do what they do best.

For those who say that online education will be the next big fix, I just don’t accept it. I think I think [emergency] Distance education is now part of the toolkit for administrators and teachers, when things close – there will be further closures. That’s it.

Listen to the full conversation On the EdSurge Podcast.

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