Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools
reviewed by A. J. Angulo - September 30, 2016
Title: Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools
Author(s): Larry Cuban
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612508863, Pages: 264, Year: 2016
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Larry Cuban has long held a special place among leading historians of American education. Since starting his career in the mid 1950s, he has developed a mix of sensibilities that includes the historian's judicious use of sources, the teacher's urgent need for practical knowledge, and the school administrator's alertness to how policy impacts practice. Cuban's classic works, including Teachers and Machines, How Teachers Taught, and Tinkering Toward Utopia (with David Tyack), became staples of the graduate student's diet almost as soon as they hit the printing press. However, these texts represent only a few of the dozens of publications he has authored and edited. To say he is prolific does not quite do Cuban justice and retirement has not seemed to slow him down.
Cuban's latest project, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools, revisits one of the most familiar themes that spans the body of his work: constancy and change. For decades, the author has puzzled over why some educational patterns stay the same while others change. Cuban has turned to history, one of the cheapest forms of research as he and Tyack once argued, to investigate what makes some reforms stick as others dissipate like dry ice. Those of us familiar with his use of this theme will feel right at home in Cubans latest study. He calls it a story of stability and change and this telegraphs precisely where he plans to take his story.
The introduction lays out the terrain. Cuban's goal is part autobiography, part history, and part contemporary analysis with the following question in mind: "What has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history over the past half-century?" (p. 1). We learn of the heritage (conserving the past) and historical (critical thinking) approaches to teaching history that have dominated the field during most of this time. The author highlights the tension between the two in policy and practice. Schools have charged their history teachers with the mission of both conserving the past and complicating how we think about our heritage. Yet he hints that these two purposes take us in different directions.
To highlight the divergence, Cuban asks readers to join him on a journey of personal recollection (Chapters One and Two), policy history (Chapter Three), classroom observation (Chapters Four and Five), and final reflections (Chapter Six). He warns us of the unusual nature of this journey, one fraught with methodological risks and uncertain outcomes. He wants to compare his mid-century experiences as a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. with what is going on today in the same schools. Between these past recollections and contemporary observations, Cuban offers a respite from the micro and turns to the macro. This bridge between sections outlines a brief history of how social studies research has intersected with national policy debates since the New History movement of the World War I era. The final chapter brings it all together by distilling the book's insights into four lessons for future policymakers.
Cuban's recollections are surprisingly detailed and refreshingly candid. He describes conversations and encounters with students, teachers, and administrators that occurred decades ago. In Cleveland, Cuban first learned how to teach in the context of residential segregation and he tells of his struggles engaging students. For example, some learners slept through his lectures, others resisted his attempts at making lessons more relevant by injecting African American history, while still others played the class clown. Cuban couples his failures with descriptions of the way he sought to increase student attention. He believes more student-centered activities focused on primary sources, current events, and critical thinking would do the trick. Based on the mix of successes and failures in the classroom, he comes to the conclusion, "the core problem of urban education and disengaged students was pedestrian teaching locked into mindlessly using fact-filled textbooks" (p. 41). As he saw it then, the problem was poor quality teaching.
This conclusion did not survive long after moving to Washington, D.C. where Cuban taught and supervised interns in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching (CPUT), a Peace Corps supported initiative. His work with CPUT began to complicate his views about urban education. Race relations, inequality, poverty, and complex governance and organizational structures collectively shattered any easy answers he might have held during his time with CPUT. From his experiences in the nation's capital, Cuban learns that the "organizational pathologies at the policymaking level and within the bureaucracy mattered greatly to how and what teachers taught daily" (p. 70). In short, the core problem of urban education was more than inadequate teaching.
Cuban's experiences in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. occurred just as social studies research and educational policy changed dramatically. The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, and the combination of these two events created intense pressure to advance science and mathematics education that spilled over into efforts to improve social studies education. The work of historians like Edwin Fenton and psychologists like Jerome Bruner came together in what those of the era called The New Social Studies (NSS), a movement that emphasized methods of inquiry. For history teachers, this meant getting students to think, write, and see the world as historians do, rather than memorize and recite facts from textbooks. Not everyone agreed with this pedagogical turn. Proponents of the heritage view of history faulted NSS for skimping on basic lessons of patriotism, loyalty, and national pride to be drawn from history. They argued that NSS spent too much time on critical thinking and not enough on the country's founding documents and the lives of those who fought to preserve them. The NSS came and went in what Cuban describes as a three-act play: the problem (competition with the Soviets), the conflict (debates over the merits of NSS reforms), and the resolution (the demise of NSS, but without clear direction moving forward). He uses this three-act play metaphor to describe how educational reforms turned into political theater and traces how this pattern has continued to the present.
With this policy history as a backdrop, Cuban returns to Cleveland and Washington, D.C. to observe history teachers at the same two schools he served a half-century earlier. He finds mostly teacher-centered instruction focusing on lectures, textbooks, and directed group discussions. In a few cases, he observes student-centered activities that incorporate engaging games or creative group projects based on primary sources. He extrapolates from this and a variety of other sources that approximately 15 to 25% of today's history teachers across the nation have made significant departures from teacher-centered practices. However, by and large Cuban's verdict is that the grammar of schooling (e.g., age-graded classrooms, daily teacher routines, bell schedules, standard operating procedures) has not changed much since his days as a history teacher. With the exception of increased technology for security and instruction, motivational posters that now decorate most school hallways, and the occasional teacher playing rap music, these two stories, both then and now, are strikingly similar to Cuban.
Cubans final reflections sound a cautionary note. We should not automatically assume that change is good and resistance to change is bad. He observes that our culture commonly associates positive qualities with change and negative ones with the status quo. While recognizing achievement gaps and under performing schools need to be addressed, Cuban is uncertain the top down reforms of the past several decades can cure those ills. Rather, his mix of autobiography and history offers an alternative. It begins by recognizing longstanding errors in the policymaking process: conflating schools with the economy, ignoring exogenous variables that affect school performance, failing to include teacher input in policymaking, and unnecessarily separating heritage (content) and historical (skills) approaches to teaching history.
Cuban's Teaching History Then and Now has come at a time when we continue to debate the merits of the standards, accountability, and testing regimes. State and national standards, performance-based pay, charter schools, vouchers, and many other changes to how schools are run and financed continue to make headlines. This book makes a case for stepping back from the political theater to consider how schools change on a daily basis as teachers work to improve their courses, classroom-by-classroom and lesson-by-lesson. This might not be the kind of change that will make the latest news cycle or help win elections. However, to Cuban it is the kind of change that has remained constant over all these decades and also has not received its due. This is an important insight and reminder. At the same time, readers might be left hanging by Cuban's concluding remarks about poverty. He claims to be uncertain about whether poverty or the grammar of schooling contributes more to the persistence of failing urban high schools. It is reasonable to suspect he has more to say on the matter than it is "unclear" (p. 169). Readers might also want to know how Cuban's recollections, policy history, and contemporary observations relate to recent developments. While not his primary focus, this study does appear after two wars in the Middle East, a global turn in the study of American history, a worldwide economic meltdown, the Citizen's United decision, the Occupy Movement, the rise of LGBTQ rights, and the refashioning of 1980s era talk of political correctness. None of these recent developments make their way into Cuban's study about then and now. Nevertheless, those interested in a personal, historical, and policy-informed account of history education would do well to begin with his hard-won treasure trove of insights.