Archive for Leadership

Book Review: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

inside the black boxHere is a very brief review of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. I so appreciate that Larry Cuban continues to publish productively on the history of education and school change. Through his blog, book forwards, and latest book, Cuban explores the most confounding quality of school reform: the more policymakers change, the more classroom practice stays the same. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice summarizes Cuban’s past work comparing national education policy to his direct observations of classroom practice. In this way, Cuban explodes myths about the effects of federal and state education initiatives on the student experience in schools. Cuban also spends a chapter exploring parallels to the evolution of the training and evaluation of medical practice.

Central to the argument is the idea of the multi-layered curriculum. Federal education policy is interpreted by states. State education standards are interpreted by districts. District initiatives are monitored by schools. Teachers interpret the curriculum as they teach. Students interpret the curriculum that they receive. Finally, assessments reveal only a partial picture of what students have actually learned. Cuban explains that these many layers have so diluted the original intent of education policy that classroom practice has remained fairly immune to change over decades. He also points out that much national and state education policy has been alarmingly simply in its theory of school change, for example that school accountability to student test scores would necessarily cause improvement in teaching practice, or that adding thousands of computing devices would necessarily improve student learning.

Education is not just complicated, however. It is complex. Cuban explains that complex systems involve humans making varying decisions and lack central command. Interdependencies and interactions exist among many different actors, often with conflicting objectives and methods. Top-down directives and simplified change theories fail to cause actual change in complex systems. Rather, Cuban argues, education policymakers would do better to empower and support teachers as professionals, change agents, and experts. School reform must address all layers of the multi-layered curriculum in order to have any chance of causing actual change on the ground.

Ironically, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice does not get very far into the classroom beyond confirming that it remains little affected by decades of large scale education reform. Other books and studies help complete the inquiry. For example, David Perkins and Project Zero studied classrooms in depth to determine when moments of understanding were achieved and created a model for effective classroom instruction based on that. Jack Schneider examined four changes to education practice that did in fact take root in the classroom and identified key factors in penetrating the black box of classroom practice. Together, these studies help identify key aspects of each layer that affects classroom practice and ultimately may help educators navigate the complex, shifting worlds of education policy.

Quantitative study of school programs

On reviewing last winter’s issue of Independent School Magazine, I was struck by stories of schools conducting rigorous studies of their own practice, particularly quantitative studies. Granted, the issue theme was “Assessing What We Value,” but turning the lens of assessment inward onto school practice represented a significant additional step in my mind.

In the article, “The Role of Noncognitive Assessment in Admissions,” the author described several schools that are collecting new information about students, traits that might help predict school success. One school (Choate Rosemary Hall) found statistically significant correlations between self-efficacy, locus of control, and intrinsic motivation (as reported by students) and GPA.

2013 E. E. Ford grant award winners included Castilleja School, to support the development of “meaningful and valid assessments of experiential learning, to apply these tools to improve the effectiveness of innovative experiential programs, and to share these best practices with other educators.” $1 million, three-quarters of this raised by the school, supports this effort.

I am following a similar path here at U Prep. Whether the question is the predictive power of standardized assessments or the meeting agendas of our instructional leadership team, I find myself quantifying behavioral data, seeking patterns, and sharing the information with people. Is this just coincidence?

While I have not rigorously studied and confirmed the possible existence of a trend toward quantitative program analysis (irony intended), it seems to me that several contributing factors might exist. Quantitative data is more easily collected, processed and shared than before. The setup of a Google Form is trivial, compared to the “old days” (actually just 10 years ago) when we used to write online forms in Perl on our school web server. Data visualization has grown as a field, to the point where major news corporations prominently feature beautiful, illustrative graphic representations of data, and programming libraries make the process easier. Publication and presentation tools easily incorporate such graphics. Use of data to support conclusions has remained a respectable practice, notwithstanding occasional misuse.

In years past, schools would rarely conduct quantitative study of their own work without substantial external help or an internal reassignment. This lent a measure of respectability to the work, as one would expect valid work from a consultant or internal member of the faculty or staff. Now, with people like me studying school practice within the scope of our full-time jobs, the risk exists that we will reach conclusions that are not well supported by the data or not well compared against results from other institutions. We have to be careful, as well as thorough.

Six Social Scientists

Originally published in the SFLC Monthly Recharge. Read the rest of the issue for other perspectives on the messiness of school leadership.


Our brains contain 80-100 billion brain cells, or about as many stars as are in the Milky Way galaxy. [1] We do not yet understand, or can simulate, consciousness, never mind thought. How, then, could it be even remotely possible for us to scientifically understand human behavior, learning, and the complex system of people that we call “school?”

Federal and state education policies reduce the analysis to an attractively simple principle. Administer student standardized tests about three times per year, in reading, writing, and math, and evaluate schools based on student performance. Standardized tests provide the illusion of scientific rigor, as tests may produce reliable, but certainly not valid, measurements of what kids know and can do. Absent leadership that is mindful of the human condition, this strategy leads to narrow curriculum, reductive teaching methods, and loss of enthusiasm for learning.

Over many decades, academia has developed a far wider range of social science practices than testing, to learn what we can about messy, human behaviors. Instead of reducing to the simplest principles, social scientists first look at the products of human behavior: the artifacts we produce, rituals we follow, and ideas we express. This approach assumes that people behave in complex ways and asks what patterns we can discern that may have validity and inform our practice.

Tom Kelley offers his Ten Faces of Innovation. [2] Edward de Bono has Six Thinking Hats. [3] I humbly offer you my “Six Social Scientists.” The next time you study an issue in your school, assume one of these social science roles and see whether it changes your perspective.

The Historian

The popular press would have you believe that education today is completely unique, unlike anything ever experienced before. Some education theorists would argue the opposite: that education has not changed at all in a hundred years. We know that neither is entirely true. Some education practices have changed little, and others have changed dramatically. Larry Cuban and David Tyack eloquently explain this in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform [4]and Tyack’s The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. [5]

A historical lens helps us better understand contemporary education debates. For example, 21st century education builds on progressive education of the 1950’s. School architects have walled off classrooms, opened them up, and brought walls back again.

The Anthropologist

Anthropology is the study of culture, and culture is defined as the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people. Schools develop strong cultures, including the cultures of the individuals within them. Ignore culture at your own risk. Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd, among many others, help us understand students’ beliefs and behaviors. Design thinking emphasizes anthropological methods, particularly techniques of observation to gain insight into subjects’ experiences and needs.

The Sociologist

Sociologists ask big questions about people and education. Contemporary topics include socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender identity, and social networking. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Youth Project have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of youth uses of electronic media.

The Psychologist

The field of psychology has contributed to our understanding of the process of learning, memory, intelligence, learning disabilities, and self-esteem, among others. From Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to Michael Thompson’s work on boys [6], psychology continues to fundamentally influence our educational practices.

The Communications Scholar

The arts of persuasion, explanation, and storytelling find expression through print, web, and video media. Skilled communication is vital in this era of social media and instantaneous news dissemination. School leaders keep their constituents informed. Boards set the vision and strategic direction of the school. Teachers keep students and parents abreast of the essential questions and accomplishments of the class.

The Education Scholar

Let us not forget that education is a social science to itself. While making explicit connections to all of the other social sciences, education also has its unique domains, such as pedagogy, curriculum development, supervision and evaluation, professional development, educational leadership, and teacher training. Make sure that you have a few education graduates in your faculty and administration!


1. “Simulating 1 Second of Human Brain Activity Takes 82,944 Processors.” ExtremeTech. ExtremeTech, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

2. Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity throughout Your Organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2005. Print.

3. De, Bono Edward. Six Thinking Hats. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Print.

4. Tyack, David B., and Larry Cuban. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

5. Tyack, David B. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.

6. “Michael Thompson, Ph.D.” Michael Thompson, Ph.D. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.