Policy for Practice: Expanding Our Field of Vision

By Natalie Pemberton posted 06-06-2024 12:00 PM


Policy for Practice: Expanding Our Field of Vision 

By Simona Goldin

Simona Goldin and David K. Cohen wrote the article “How Teachers Might Have Taught but Most Didn’t, and Why” in the latest quarterly issue of The Educational Forum.

When David K. Cohen and I wrote How Teachers Might Have Taught, but Most Didn’t, and Why, we were no strangers to the persistent failure of school reform. Point of fact, in Cohen’s article, Teaching Practice: Plus Ca Change (1988), he illustrates important reasons for “why teaching seems to be resistant to change.” 

And yet we found ourselves asking each other:  

  • What are the limits of what we might learn from studying and documenting failure?  

  • What (else) might we learn from success?  


Educational and political leaders have repeatedly pointed to the failure of our schools. For example, the Boston Grammar School Committee visited common schools in the 1840s and wrote a devastating report that argued that many students in Boston’s schools had not been taught to think. More than a century later, the Sputnik scare in the 1950s resulted in U.S. leaders declaring that public schools and the students inside of them lagged behind our international competitors. Most recently, the drumbeat of what Deborah Loewenberg Ball calls “crisis narratives” has accelerated, taking focus on COVID “learning loss”. Ball writes that emphasis on loss is another example of a “shared narrative of education crisis,” and that these narratives pose a real danger to public education (2024).    

One area of consistent failure has been the historic and contemporaneous obstruction of access to ambitious and equitable learning for students of color. For example, U.S. schools continue to deny students of color access to schools where they can thrive and learn to problem-solve and where they can engage in asking questions and constructing solutions to the realities and needs of our present moments. And yet we know, as well, of flourishing amidst challenge and even injusticeSiddle Walker’s (1988) groundbreaking work in which she wrote about the overlooked history of African American schools in the segregated south, and how “placed the needs of African American students at the center of its mission, which was in turn shared by the community.” What might that flourishing reveal? How can it help guide ongoing efforts to create schools where critical thinking and invention are regular occurrences? 

Amidst evidence of persistent failure, in our article, we wondered: what could we learn if we expanded our field of vision to include particular attention to success? From this question, our study was bornDriven to generate knowledge of success, we re-examined educational reform efforts in the 19th and 20th centuriesWe uncovered more challenges and strainsAnd, also, moments of successIt is from these successes that we distill the following key learnings. 

  • Policy for practice 

    • There is promise in reform efforts that center the practice of teaching, and that offered sustained support for the development, design, sharing, and study of teachingThese approaches distinguished themselves from modal efforts which prescribe inert resourcessuch as curriculum and educational technologieswithout attention to the use of these resources. 

  • The long hand of history, and the importance of unlearning 

    • We are consistently bedeviled by the long hand of history, and our apprenticeships of observation, which have resulted in deeply conservative practice (Lortie, 1975). There is promise in confronting those histories and the ways that they constrain and structure what we imagine teaching to be. Reformers must plan for and support the unlearning that ambitious reforms demand.  

  • Educational infrastructure 

    • The U.S. educational system’s lack of infrastructure has meant weak support for ambitious efforts at reformOur analyses of reform efforts in Indianapolis in the late 19th century and in Denver in early-to-mid 20th century illuminate the power of mobilizing necessary resources to build enough elements of infrastructure and political support to enable significant progress. 

Together we conclude there is “promise for what concerted, systemic approaches to reform that are disciplined by a focus on the mechanisms of teaching and learning might do.” 


Simona Goldin is a Research Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina. Her research is on training beginning teachers to teach in more racially just and equitable ways, looking at how innovations are weaponized against communities they are meant to support.