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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Reformers’ Occupational Hazards: Innocence and Failure

Coming up on year three of the Covid-19 pandemic, school reformers want the crisis to become an opportunity for re-doing public schools. If only these pandemic-inspired reformers knew the past (see here and here).

The history of school reform has been a back-and-forth journey between hyperactive innocence and passive resignation. I will explain this and give examples shortly but I want to ask one question and then make one fact clear before I do.

Why has school reform occurred again and again? One would think that reform-minded policymakers and deep pocket donors who have not only defined educational and social problems to be solved, planned solutions to those problems, and adopted remedies–would be satisfied and walk away confident that the problems would disappear. Not so. Turns out that the social and educational problems reformers, generation after generation, aim to solve hang around after well-intentioned problem-solvers exit. Then amid a crisis (e.g., Sputnik in 1958, low test scores of American students on international tests in the 1970s) another generation of wannabe reformers enter stage right or stage left, do their thing and float off the stage (see herehere, and here).

The fact is that for tax-supported public schools in the U.S. there has been a perennial school “crisis” since the late-19th century (see herehere, and here). Naive reformers have attacked again and again, “crises” (and continue to) with gusto and money leaving disappointed practitioners, parents, and researchers slinking away, resigned to failure in the wake of perverse changes they had not anticipated.

Some examples of dangerous naivete and fatalism will help.


1. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to the Newark public schools in 2010. With an additional $100 million raised in private funds, reformers closed Newark schools, created more charters, and vowed to improve abysmal student test scores in math and reading. Then Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and others hailed the grants. However, much pushback from a subsequent mayor, community activists, and parents, largely ignored by the donors in giving the money to school officials, complicated the reforms (see herehere, and here). And the results, at best, have been mixed. At worst, many consultants reaped a bonanza.

Chalkbeat journalist Matt Barnum concluded:

*The overall effect of the reforms on student learning was mixed.

*Students seemed to benefit from school closures.

* Charter schools continued to outperform the district, but have grown less effective.

*The results don’t show whether the reforms “worked” — because that’s a complicated question.

2. Technology transforms teaching and learning. The heady optimism of donors, Silicon Valley companies, and venture capitalists that teachers and students using devices and software will revolutionize teaching and learning have long been the hyperbole peddled by enthusiasts since desktops entered schools in the early 1980s.

Even with accessibility broadened to 1:1 devices available to students–especially with the sudden move to remote instruction during the Covid-19 pandemic–they are used only here and there in lessons.

The fact is that many teachers continue to struggle in integrating devices and software into their lessons.

Struggles aside, digital tools have surely been incorporated into most teachers’ repertoire of classroom activities during the school day. But transformed teaching? Hardly.

Yes, classroom furniture has changed compared to the 1950s. Whiteboards have replaced blackboards. And “smart” boards have been installed. But the usual format of a lesson–beginning, middle, and end; dividing class into small groups, allowing for independent work, whole group discussions, etc. etc. etc.–all of these continue (see herehere, and here). Incremental changes have occurred in teaching over the decades but transformation, not so. Yet reformers’ innocence about past reforms and ignorant of the deep complexity of schooling continue in their frothy naivete and can-do enthusiasm for the reform du jour.

Resigned to Failure :

1. School reforms fail. Wrong.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in upper grades of elementary school, took algebra in middle or high school and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each parcel assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this successful?

Or consider the kindergarten. An innovation initiated by late-19th century middle-class women in various cities who wanted young, poor children to get experiences that would help them and their families do better in life. Beginning in private schools, by the early 1900s, city school systems slowly incorporated these private kindergartens into public schools making them K-8 schools (see here and here). By the end of the 20th century, pre-kindergarten classes for three- and four-year olds had become part of many urban districts (see here).

2. Largely minority and poor urban schools fail again and again.   Not so. Instances of schools and districts enrolling poor children of color succeeding by the dominant metrics (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, college admissions) have appeared since the late-1970s when the Effective Schools movement emerged. Such schools and districts are surely the exception but they do exist especially when superintendent, principal and teacher leadership at these sites remain stable over time. Examples of such schools and districts that have lasted are:

*KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program)

*Harlem Children’s Zone

*Summit Charter Schools

Keep in mind, however, that these districts and schools are not the rule. The dismal fact is that most schools and districts with predominately poor and minority children and youth are under-resourced, have inexperienced or beaten-down teaching staffs, and a record of entering and exiting principals and superintendents who cannot get a grip on the schools they lead. The record of continuing failure–using metrics of the day–tell the same story over and over again.

Reformers, then, have blended naivete and fatalism over generations, ignoring the past, overlooking the fact that schooling is a political enterprise, and, worse yet, seldom listening to those who work daily in classrooms. That ignorance has been dangerous for schools then as it is now.

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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-...