Reforms Targeting Teachers, Schools, Districts, and the Nation (Part 1)

“History doesn’t teach lessons, historians do.”  Because historians interpret the past they often disagree, even revise, the meaning of events from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to school reform.

What historians can do is show that in the flow of time constant change occurs. As a wise ancient Greek said: you cannot step into the same river twice. Thus, the past differs from the present even when they seem so similar. Consider, for example, U.S. involvement in Vietnam a half-century ago and Afghanistan since 2001.  Or “scientific management” dominating school reformers’ vocabulary and action in the early 1900s and the audit culture of test-driven accountability pervasive a century later. Historians can show the complexity of human action in the past and offer alternative perspectives that can inform current policy making but they cannot give policymakers specific guidelines. Although some try.

With that in mind, I turn to the current conventional wisdom among school reformers that focusing on the state and district are the best units for engineering change in schools and classrooms.  In examining past generations of school reformers, however,  it becomes clear that where change must occur has shifted time and again from the smallest unit–the teacher in the classroom–to the school, the district, the state, and nation. As political, economic, and social changes occurred in the U.S., previous generations of reformers skipped back and forth among these units of change as to which would best produce the changes they sought.

For example, in the early 1900s, few, if any, school reformers thought of the state or nation as the unit of reform. They saw the district and individual school as appropriate levers for change. A century later, however, with No Child Left Behind, test-driven accountability rules, Race to The Top incentive funds, and Common Core standards in math and reading adopted by nearly all the states– many policymakers see both the state and nation as the dominant units for reforming schools.

Or consider the era of “scientific management” in the years before and after World War I  when efficiency-minded experts from academia studied individual teachers, school principals, and district superintendents to see how well they were managing classrooms, schools, and districts. In these years, reformers introduced rating scales for teacher lessons and schools while also creating district-wide achievement tests for students. The focus was on schools and classrooms as units of change that would eventually transform the entire district’s manner of schooling children and youth.

Among contemporary reformers, there still remains a deep interest in reforming how teachers are evaluated and paid including the use of students’ test scores. Moreover, many reformers pushing “professional learning communities” and “professional development” see individual teachers and schools as appropriate units of change. Current reforms, then, mirror an earlier period of intense focus on individual teacher and administrator actions as ways of improving the entire district.

Times change and reform passions shift. Consider that school reformers in the 1960s and 1970s were hostile to districts, especially in cities. They saw large districts as mismanaged and bureaucratically constipated, even pathological entities, that could not reform schools and classrooms. Both southern and northern urban districts, for example, dragged out the process of desegregating schools. Many big city district leaders also opposed breaking up central office bureaucracies and decentralizing operations into smaller units. The district, reformers said, was the enemy of school reform. Look to the school as the best way to change classroom lessons and district operations. By the early-1980s, especially after A Nation at Risk report appeared, the school became central to reformer’s plans. The whole-school reform movement surged forward in both large and small districts and continued through the 1990s. Charter schools, after all, when they began and now were and are instances of whole-school reform.

Not so in the early 21st century. Districts have again become the engine of reform. Big city districts, for example, receive grants from private donors and federal agencies. Foundations give awards to those urban districts that improve student academic achievement. Surely, individual schools still receive grants and the whole-school reform model exists alongside major district-based efforts. But the facts are clear among contemporary reformers: Federal and state authorities establish the framework for districts to manage reform. Districts manage individual schools to implement the reforms.

Which units of change, then, best achieve reformer goals? Research studies have nothing to offer in guiding those who seek to improve schools. Historically, the answer has shifted again and again, depending on reformers’ goals, and the theories that reform-driven policymakers had in their heads about how change occurs in complex institutions such as schools. The past and present focus on the district has strong historical roots, ones that I will elaborate in Part 2.

Are there lessons that an historian of school reform can find in the district as an engine of change? Hardly. The past is not the present; they differ greatly. In looking at present efforts at district reform, however, I can offer an interpretation of past efforts that might inform current policies.

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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...