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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: The Myth That Better Schools Will Reduce Inequalities in Wealth and Health

No secret now that U.S. inequalities in the distribution of wealth has reached the highest levels since the 1920s.

Nor is it a secret that racial disparities in health–infant mortality is three times higher for black women than women of other races and American Indians have the highest suicide rates–still plague Americans.

What’s the connection between stark inequalities of wealth and health among Americans and schools? It is that for over a century school reformers, like die-hard fanatics who perseverate in the face of one failure after another, believe that U.S. schools can solve national problems, including inequalities in wealth and health through producing graduates primed to get jobs in an ever-changing labor market. Yet school reform has yet to solve major U.S. problems.

The source for these steel-hardened beliefs in school reform can be found in Americans’ expectations for tax-supported public schools. Schools are expected to produce public goods in the form of skilled graduates, citizens, and solutions to problems such as weak economic growth due to inadequately skilled graduates, urban and rural poverty, ill health, and unemployment. Parents also expect that access to good public schooling will put my children on a social escalator to financial success, health, and a better life–a private good.

Yet strong tensions are embedded in this public good–schooling for all–and the private good–I want my kids in the best schools to get the best jobs. Since educational credentials have become the gold standard for attaining financial success, and since everyone cannot go to Harvard or Stanford or graduate with MBAs and Ph.Ds., conflicts between getting access to education–a public good– and at the same time gaining advantage for one’s own children–a private good–have bedeviled school reformers for the past two centuries.

David Labaree’s “Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling” makes the persuasive case that school reforms stumble repeatedly over these tensions between public access and private advantage and, in the long run, these failed school reforms harden rather than soften larger social inequalities in public schools. How does that occur?

Because reformers persistently see schools solving larger social, political, and economic problems–they “educationalize” problems. They look to the school, an inherently conservative institution, to remedy persistent problems of racial and socioeconomic segregation, inadequate medical care, crippling poverty, crime, unemployment, and [insert your favorite national problem here]. And in their ever-optimistic but continually failed efforts for schools to solve major societal problems, reformers end up hardening social inequalities by unintentionally reproducing these inequalities in schools and supplying well-intentioned programs for gifted and talented studentsAdvanced Placement courses, and digital technologies including computer courses in largely minority and poor urban schools across the nation. Evidence again and again shows that such programs fail to show positive results and harden already existing socioeconomic differences. That occurs because these programs are quickly launched with few experienced teachers and students having the requisite skills while the same programs where the capacities of teachers and students have been nourished and grown over many years are plentiful in largely white, affluent districts (see my post on three-tiered system of schooling, June 20 2010)

High-profile exceptions to this pattern of failures exist. Recent growth of small urban high schools in big cities have offered far more students than ever before a chance to enter higher education; KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire and charter schools give choices to urban parents where none existed; wraparound social and educational programs like Harlem’s Children Zone offer hope to both parents and children. These and similar programs may achieve short-term success with their students staying in school and going to college. But their very existence is water poured into a bucket full of holes when it comes to larger societal issues of slow economic growth, poverty, racial disparities in health  and mal-distribution of wealth.

What to do? Recognize publicly that schools as a social institution is an indirect and inappropriate tool to remedy national problems. Once acknowledged, political leaders and legislatures can adopt and implement strong, direct, and appropriate measures  to reduce inequalities that are available such as progressive tax policies and earned income tax credits,  family support policies, universal health insurance as exist in many other nations. Movement toward such direct measures will get a conservative political institution such as public schools out of the business of solving problems indirectly and ineptly.

Will it happen? Not until sufficient voters and groups are mobilized to recognize the limits of schooling and then sort out what schools can and cannot do.

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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-...