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Teaching and Learning at the Research University
One of the nation's most distinguished educational historians, Larry Cuban has had a long and varied career as a social studies teacher, public school administrator, and university professor. Deeply attentive to the everyday challenges of life in schools, his research explores both the hopes for and the practical limits of educational reform, as suggested by titles such as How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990 (1993) and (with David Tyack) Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995).
In his latest book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change Without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990 (Teachers College Press, 1999), Cuban probes a century's worth of efforts to improve teaching and learning in the American research university. In an institution so profoundly devoted to the research imperative, he asks, what are the prospects for meaningful curricular reform?
Peer Review: Having worked for 25 years in the public schools and another 20 years at the university level, you've no doubt seen many reform projects come and go... In your experience, how do schools and research universities compare as sites for innovation?
Larry Cuban: I don't see too many differences. And the reason is that, in both contexts, the pressure for major renovations tends to come from the outside. For example, consider the Sputnik crisis, or the Vietnam War, or the coming of the new computer technologies... Over the past twenty years, the strongest pressure on K-12 schooling has come from the accusation that it has failed to meet high standards. There have been constant calls to hold schools accountable, and in particular to adopt corporate models of competition and efficiency. And, of course, the same pressure has been placed on universities for at least a decade, compounded by the intense pressures to go on line with distance education.
In both contexts, what happens is that events occur in the larger society and then press upon the schools. Both K-12 and higher education are put in the position of responding to these things-they're both made to innovate.
PR: And are they equally responsive to external pressures?
Cuban: Yes, all kinds of schools respond in similar ways to outside forces. But this isn't to say that those pressures lead to real changes in the schools. In fact, what usually happens is the opposite: schools end up changing the reforms. More specifically, they choose to adapt particular pieces of the larger idea, similar to selecting individual dishes from a menu. Let me give an example from my own institution. In the 1990s, there was a lot of excitement at Stanford over a major, five-year plan to reform the medical school curriculum. Well, in fact what happened was that a couple of new courses were introduced, and the school slightly extended the length of its program. And, then, even these minor changes virtually disappeared over time, since nothing was done to introduce faculty to the new courses. Within a six to seven year period, it was clear that only the shell of the plan was intact.
In short, the common pattern is this: broad, fundamental changes, or what I call "reforms," are reduced to narrow, incremental changes. So, in spite of the constant external pressures to reform, there's a lot of stability in school and university curricula.
PR: If the pressure for curricular change tends to come from outside, then one might expect that the bigger the societal changes, the greater the school reform... Does it work this way? In other words, at a time of great political and economic transformations-the shift to an information economy, globalization, rapid increases in college attendance, and so on-shouldn't we expect to see big changes in college curriculum and teaching?
Cuban: No, I don't think so. For instance, as you point out, the B.A. is becoming an increasingly common credential. Well, that's what happened to the high school diploma in the 1930s and 1940s. It's the same pattern-what was essentially an elite institution becomes the model for a mass institution, as well... And what you get is much more continuity between the kinds of teaching you see in elite and mass institutions.
What I mean is that the lecture is going to continue. In universities, there's a lot of talk about the importance of student-centered learning, active learning, smaller classes, and so on. But the enrollments that we're facing will continue to press for large classes, lectures, and whole-group instruction. My hunch is that what I would call persistent patterns of teaching are going to continue all across the board.
PR: What are those "persistent patterns of teaching"? And what makes you think they're so persistent?
Cuban: For my book How Teachers Taught, I researched K-12 instruction over the last century-I looked at photographs, teacher accounts, journalists' accounts, principals' reports, evaluations, thousands and thousands of records, from four different cities and rural areas, at the turn of the century, in the 1920s, and in the 1960s... Then, more recently, I did a similar study of university instruction, focusing especially on my own institution, Stanford University. I looked at more than a century's worth of archival records, including professors' descriptions of their own teaching, students' descriptions of classroom instruction, student surveys, faculty self-evaluations, and national databases.
What I found in both cases was the remarkably constant presence of what's typically called "subject-centered teaching" or "teacher-centered instruction," where the teacher is the center of authority and knowledge, does most of the talking, directs how learning is to occur, structures all of the activities, and so on. That's been the dominant way of teaching, both in K-12 and in universities.
There's been some variation, of course-no doubt about it. For example, kindergarten instruction is different from high school physics teaching. But if you're looking at, say, high schools and undergraduate and graduate instruction, there's been a great deal of continuity.
Now, to be sure, there has also been a minority of teachers -- I would say in the five to ten percent range -- who have been deeply taken with student-centered instruction. And that minority has always existed. It was there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it will still exist in the twenty-first century. There are some teachers who have structured their classrooms this way, and they have persisted along with the others. But, again, they've remained a distinct minority.
PR: And you don't see that minority growing or shrinking very much?
Cuban: It grows and shrinks modestly, at best.
PR: So what would you make of, for example, the Writing-across-the-Curriculum movement that started in the 1970s?
Cuban: Well, that's a wonderful exception, a reform that has succeeded, largely because it has spread in grassroots fashion, from teachers to other teachers. And it's particularly impressive in that it seeks changes not only in the curriculum but also in pedagogy-in other words, it doesn't divorce content from teaching. But, unfortunately, that's a minority attitude toward curriculum and instruction, and it has rarely received much financing or support in the research university.
PR: What do you make of curricular programs that are specifically designed to be integrative, such as general education?
Cuban: General education is a very good example of a reform that is meant to be integrative but which, in practice, becomes piecemeal. Quite often, it's posed as a fundamental kind of change, something that will truly reform undergraduate learning. And, quite often, people do come to an agreement about its value. They plan to create all of these required courses and distribution requirements.... What typically happens, though, is that the required courses get cut back after a few years, and the distribution requirements become much more flexible. Plus, while you may get a lot of senior faculty involved in teaching introductory and general education courses in the first few years, those faculty usually turn out to be more driven by their research agendas, and they tend to want to go back to their old schedules.
In other words, by the end of five or ten years, what had seemed to be a real program of general education turns out to look pretty close to the all-elective curriculum that was already in place. And, historically speaking, this is what has happened over and over again at universities that started out saying, "We're going to make fundamental changes in undergraduate education!"
PR: What's behind this historical pattern, in your opinion? Are research universities designed to undercut serious attempts at reform?
Cuban: Of course, it's not a conspiratorial process. You have to understand the political and the organizational factors that are at work in universities. For the sake of example, local departmental struggles will go on regardless of whatever changes occur around them-unless you go ahead and abolish departments, which is something that only a few research universities have ever done (and even in those cases, the old departments have returned). You might start out with a single, fundamental, university-wide reform. But then you find that each department has its own political struggles, and so each one ends up adapting the larger reform in its own way. Some departments want to do this, and some departments want to do that... and so they each renovate the reform to fit their needs. For instance, the history department may say, "Look, we don't want to devote all of those resources to general education. We'd like to have a few more graduate seminars, too, because we really want to expand in Asian History." Then, the psychology department will say, "Well, if History is expanding, then we're going to beef up our honors program." This kind of stuff goes on all the time.
PR: In your recent book, you also describe a process that you call "enclaving." How does that work?
Cuban: Say that an institution manages to build a great deal of support for a fundamental reform. Only, after a few years, some sort of unanticipated external pressure arises-maybe there's a recession, for example. Suddenly the school can't devote the resources necessary to continue the reform, but the new plan still has a lot of advocates around, and those people wouldn't stand for their efforts to be abandoned. So, the university leadership will try to strike a compromise: "We can't extend this fundamental reform to all the departments that we wanted to, so let's just try it out here in one college, or in one department..." For example, take the experimental colleges that developed across the country in the late '60s and early '70s. They were meant to be beachheads, the beginning of an effort to reform entire institutions, but they ended up as single units within larger institutions, or they were eventually altered to look just like any other college. In other words, they became enclaves.
PR: Do university leaders pay sufficient attention to these historical patterns of constancy and change?
Cuban: The policy debate tends to be almost entirely a-historical-after all, it's geared toward the future, toward encouraging change... Plus, a lot of policy folks are sure that they'll avoid past mistakes, and it can be depressing for them to look at history too closely.
As for faculty and administrators, my experience is that most people working on campus change projects don't look at the past either. One example comes to mind-it's not about undergraduate education, but the lesson certainly applies there too: a few years ago, I completed a historical study of the medical school curriculum at Stanford. One of the faculty members there knows me, and he was aware of my research, so he posted the relevant chapter from my book on the Web, and he encouraged his colleagues to read it, since they were in the midst of a curricular reform project. Well, it turned out that the medical faculty, students, and administrators were surprised by what they read. Up to that point, they had known very little about what had occurred at their school over the last century.
Now, whether my study has informed their dialogue, I can't say, but my point is that my work more or less fell into their laps. I don't know that they would otherwise have chosen to look into their own institutional history, and I doubt that very many reformers ever do so. After all, everybody's under tremendous pressure to make change. Higher education has a reputation for being traditional, and the incentive is to show that you're up with the times. There's very little pressure to show that you've learned from the past.
PR: You've argued that research has always "trumped" teaching in research universities. What do you mean by this?
Cuban: The core of my argument is one that, I'm sure, is familiar to many of your readers. In brief, all of the modern university's structural, cultural, and economic incentives have supported research over teaching, throughout the last century. When push comes to shove, those faculty who are researchers are going to be more highly prized than those who emphasize teaching, regardless of the rhetoric. You can see it in tenure and promotion, in the way sabbaticals are set up, the way departments function, and even in the way that the elective curriculum works. All of these are, fundamentally, supportive of the research imperative.
Now I'm not insisting that this is wrong, I'm just describing it. But if you do believe that teaching should be balanced with research, then you should try to correct the misalignment, try to restore some balance between the two.
PR: But it sounds as though you're painting all institutions with the same brush... Aren't there significant variations in the ways that universities value research and teaching?
Cuban: Yes and no. Again, this is why I would distinguish between incremental and fundamental change, or between what I call, in How Scholars Trumped Teachers, "change" and "reform." Over the last century, we have certainly experienced a great deal of the former, but we've seen very little of the latter.
In my book, for example, I discuss the variation that exists among departments here at Stanford. It turns out that the professional schools, such as Business and Engineering, have structured themselves over the decades to create incentives for excellence in teaching. For instance, they've developed procedures for evaluating instruction, and they've chosen to reward teaching through their criteria for promotion and tenure... and yet, the research imperative certainly remains very strong, and probably dominant.
So, yes, there is institutional variation. But on a much larger scale, there's been a remarkable constancy among and within selective universities. Sure, we can observe lots of incremental changes, but they amount to tinkering at the edges. If you're asking about the overall status of teaching relative to research, then I would say no, I don't see much variation or much evidence of fundamental change.
PR: In looking for "evidence of reform," you seem to focus very specifically on a couple of things: the status of teaching relative to research, and the degree to which changes pervade the institution. Generally speaking, though, how do administrators judge the success of new curricular designs?
Cuban: I'd argue that a couple of criteria tend to be most influential in assessing the success of change projects. One is pervasiveness: Has the program spread to very many campuses? The other is effectiveness: Has the program done what it said it was going to do?
It's usually the hardest to find data for the second criterion. How come? Because reforms will often be driven by fairly abstract ideas, such as, "Let's make universities more efficient and productive!" Well, how do you know whether business methods have made your university more efficient? How do you know if the new distance learning project has made your university more productive? Do you ask if people are learning more? How would you know this? And what do you mean by "more"?
It's awfully hard to locate data that would answer these sorts of questions, so administrators rarely follow up on them. Nevertheless, the criterion of effectiveness is so powerful that people constantly invoke it.
PR: You seem to be arguing that there's rarely enough respect for the complexity of campus change. People are impatient to judge programs, whether or not those judgements are warranted.
Cuban: Right. People tend to invoke what are called "popular criteria." That's what allows a university president or a school superintendent to claim, "Yes, we're innovating! We're not behind the times." Change is so powerful a value in our culture that you have to say that you're changing... you absolutely have to say so. Even Research I institutions, no matter how selective, have to prove to the parents who are paying tuition, "Oh yes, we have computers on campus. Oh yes, our students use technology in every single course, every single day." You cannot get away with saying, "We are traditional. We're not going to change, because our curriculum works already." Very few places will say that openly... maybe a St. John's college or a few others.
PR: If you wanted to design a fair and honest assessment of a curricular change-general education reform, say-how would you do it? And what pressures would you have to remove in order for a real assessment to be possible?
Cuban: It hasn't been done, to my knowledge, and it would be difficult to get it done, too. First of all, general education never sits still, so if you're trying to use an experimental design, forget about it. Over the years, the program will develop all sorts of internal variations, making it very difficult to decide what it is that you're studying.
Second, the kinds of research that are highly prized in universities are surveys and cross-sectional analyses, and these methods just don't get at questions such as, "Does the general education program work?" or "What does it mean to have a successful program?"
I suppose that one way to really assess a new program would be to do a qualitative, longitudinal study. But I don't see institutional researchers doing that sort of long-term work. It's very slow and labor-intensive.
PR: What do you mean "long term"? How long would it take to really figure out if a curricular change was worth it?
Cuban: Well, "long-term" would be, say, a five-year study. Let's stay with the example of general education: first, you'd have to research the history of general education at your institution, in order to understand the context for your changes. And you'd also have to understand the history of general education more broadly. That's just to begin with... Then you would have to set up both qualitative and quantitative ways of gathering evidence.
But I can't think of any major studies of general education that have looked at the program that way...
PR: What would it take to accomplish the larger reforms that you've described?
Cuban: Well, I'm realistic, and I know that in Research I institutions the research imperative is going to remain strong. But if you're interested in creating more of a balance between teaching and research-whether it's at the department or at the school or at the university level-then you need leadership. And by a "leader" I mean not only a department chair, dean, provost, or president who wants to restore that balance... but, more specifically, someone who's highly sophisticated about the politics involved, someone who knows they have to approach the task incrementally. And then, of course, you need a cadre of faculty who share that commitment, and both have to be there for a fairly long period of time. Those are some of the factors that might lead to the sort of balance I describe in the last chapter of my book.
PR: What other advice would you give to faculty and administrators who are working to improve the teaching and curriculum on their campuses?
Cuban: You need to have a fairly clear view of where you want to end up: What kinds of knowledge, what kinds of skills, and what kind of attitude do you want your students to have when they finish with this experience? These are fairly straightforward, conventional kinds of questions. But they're not always asked by those embarking on curricular and instructional change. I think it's important also to ask, how long do you intend to stay with the project? The reforms I'm familiar with, both in K-12 and universities, usually require anywhere from five to ten years of steady, persistent efforts.
Also, I'd want to acknowledge that, in a democracy, reformers are constantly pressured to exaggerate their outcomes. In the university context, we don't really consider modesty to be a virtue-that's not how you build a reputation. In other words, I suppose it's necessary to make exaggerated claims, but this also creates some dilemmas for those actually doing the work.
PR: Would you say that you're optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful curricular change in the university?
Cuban: Hmm... I don't like the choice. I suppose I would say that I'm a tempered idealist, or a realistic optimist. For example, say that you're climbing a mountain-you really want to know how others have experienced that mountain before, and you want to know what's at the top, and you want to know different ways of getting there, and you want to know how difficult it's going to be. And that to me is realistic. But you do plan on getting to the top -- so that's where the optimism is. Tussman, Joseph. 1997. The Beleaguered College: Essays on Education Reform. University of California: Institute of Governmental Studies Press.