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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Do No Harm: The Case of U.S. School Reform

My personal view is policymakers should be risk-averse when it comes to changing public school systemsTo alter the institutional structure of U.S. schools radically without sufficient evidence that the ‘reforms’ would be successful is to put our children at risk … careful experimentation and evaluation should proceed on a limited basis before wide-scale institutional changes are introduced such as vouchers, magnet schools, and charter schools.

Few readers would ever guess that those words came from economist Alan Krueger in 2001. Krueger had analyzed huge databases on schooling in the U.S. responding often to both economic and educational policy questions with this sober and, in my judgment, wise opinion.

That advice from an economist who then was highly respected by elected officials and CEOs cautioned federal, state, and local policymakers to pump the policy brakes rather than recklessly speed down a crowded street; he wanted decision-makers to be “risk-averse.” He wanted proposed changes in schools to be determined by careful research and evaluation. He wanted school reform to do no harm to students.

Few contemporary educational policymakers, corporate leaders, state governors, U.S. presidents or even pundits counsel deliberateness or worry about negative fallout from reforms. They want schools to change course, meet the demands of the 21st century and, as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it recently:

“This moment of disruption [Covid-19 school closures] should be a moment of reinvention. It should be a moment when leaders rise up and say: Let’s get beyond stale debates over charters, vouchers, gender neutral bathrooms and the like. We’re going to rethink the nuts and bolts of how we teach in America.

The headline for Brooks’ op-ed was: “America Should Be in the Middle of a Schools Revolution.”

None of this policy chatter about wholesale school reform is new, of course. Scholars Milbrey McLaughlin and Richard Elmore over three decades ago called school reform “steady work.” While school-hating has gone in and out of fashion, risk-averse reform has been reviled as too little, too late and inconsequential. Calls for massive innovations and overhauling curriculum and classroom instruction even after Covid-19 rippled across the nation in the early 2020s.

Consider what a few corporate executives recently said schools should be doing.

Here’s a Vice-President at Sales Force:

To build a pipeline of strong early-career job seekers, K-12 schools should put systems in place to promote collaborative learning and communication, which will help students develop the necessary interpersonal skills that will help them succeed in the workforce.

A top executive at Southwest Airlines had this to say:

Problem solving requires teamwork, and the only way to learn teamwork is if you’re on a team. Almost every opportunity in life, especially in the working world, requires working with others. By students involving themselves in sports, projects, or school activities, they’ll hone these skills.

Over and over, advice from corporate executives is for schools to teach problem solving and teamwork. These are reasonable expectations, in my judgment, but the problem is that Americans expect their schools to do many other things beyond problem solving and teamwork. Schools not only are expected to make children and youth literate but build character, and graduate patriotic, college going Americans.

For nearly two centuries, Americans have debated which of these multiple goals should be primary. School reform has been pervasive and ongoing. It has become America’s business and has been since the first tax-supported public schools opened their doors in the mid-19th century.

For example, give Google the question: What should U.S. schools be doing? Such a question gets at the multiple goals Americans expect their taxes to pay for in schooling the nation’s young. When prompted, Google returned (May 2, 2023) over two billion results in a few seconds. Answers to this goal-centered question come from students, teachers, administrators, parents, CEOs and other business leaders, academics and taxpayers with no children in public schools. So there is no shortage of suggestions for school improvement among Americans.

Among avid reformers who seek transforming school policies and classroom practice, being risk averse, as Krueger counseled, is seen as honoring tradition–equivalent to doing nothing.

And that is a shame for few reformers can anticipate the paths major school reforms take once adopted. The Hippocratic oath charging doctors to do no harm applies just as well to educational policymakers and practitioners in adopting new policies and putting them into practice in America’s schools and classrooms.


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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-...