ften frustration with the public education system is directed at teachers, even when they are following the standards and guidelines set out by the government. Everyone from politicians, to non-profits to parents tell teachers how to do their jobs better. So it’s no surprise that when the federal state education officials or school superintendents announce a new initiative that not all teachers are ready to jump on the new trend. Education has a long history of reform, each succeeded by another, and teachers have learned to pick and choose carefully where to put their energies.
“There is such a gap between policy talk and what happens on the ground,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a former high school social studies teacher and district superintendent. Cuban, a respected voice in the education community, says it can take a long time for new policies to actually get implemented in classrooms, and as schools are gearing up, new policies often come in to replace the ones being implemented. It’s a frustrating cycle for teachers and often leads them to follow their own best judgement about what works in the classroom and ignore the winds of change that can shift so quickly.
“There are so many things that are given to us that are either time wasters or disrespectful to teachers.”
“They have history on their side,” Cuban said. He’s not surprised that teachers are reticent to immediately accept new trends in learning, especially if that trend is coming around for the second or third time. Take project-based learning, for example. It has become the catch phrase du jour, especially with the arrival of Common Core State Standards, but the concept isn’t new and many schools have been quietly practicing project-based learning since the time of John Dewey and Maria Montessori.
“It’s never disappeared,” Cuban said. Schools that were committed to a project-based learning approach continued to use it and made sure that their students also did well on state-mandated assessments. The practice has a history well over a century long — it didn’t arise just because new Common Core State Standards are now requiring similar skills, he says.
Even with other “new” teaching practices and ideas, “among teachers there are early adopters, so some teachers buy into it very quickly, and then when administrators pull back or funding dries up they’re stuck,” Cuban said. To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students.