Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: A Fairy Tale Reform

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness across our land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

Schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale? Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 70 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2017, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and punish low performance. What “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back nearly three-quarters of a century.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...