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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Teachers Putting Reforms into Practice: “The Implementation Problem”

Guess who wrote these paragraphs.

I’ve been struck of late by how would-be reformers have been reacting when things go awry. After all, even some of those bullish on Race to the Top have privately conceded that maybe it didn’t turn out quite like they’d hoped. Champions of teacher evaluation are busy explaining, “Well, that’s not what we meant!” when hit with complaints, lawsuits, and concerns about the reliability and validity of some ill-conceived systems. Common Core advocates are busy explaining that the goofy homework questions and worksheets don’t accurately reflect their handiwork.

In each case, we’re assured, the underlying ideas are sound–it’s just a matter of confusion or inevitable “implementation problems.” Now, it’s true that change is always hard…. But the fact that implementation problems are inevitable doesn’t mean they’re okay. More importantly, the severity of these problems is not a given: it varies depending on how complex and technocratic the measure is, whether it’s being pushed from Washington, on the breadth and depth of political support, on whether the plan is fully baked, and on the incentives for effective execution. I’ve seen precious little evidence that advocates have done much to minimize the problems.

Those championing teacher evaluation, School Improvement Grants, or Common Core frequently sound as if they think no one could have anticipated or planned for the challenges that have emerged. To my ear, the disgruntlement tends to sound like that of a kid who leaves his new bike out unlocked, and then gets furious when it’s stolen. Of course, it’s unfair. But, you know what? He really should’ve known better. Advocates tend to blame their frustrations on other folks (bike thieves, Tea Party members, textbook publishers, principals, data analysts, et al.) getting in the way or screwing up. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their vision of how this would go down was perhaps colored by rose-tinted glasses or that their miscalculations may have aggravated the problems.

Sounds like these paragraphs about myopic reformers failing to anticipate implementation problems might have come from reform critic Diane Ravitch or teacher union chief, Randy Weingarten. No, neither wrote those words.

Prolific writer and blogger Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote the above paragraphs. Note the above ellipsis. I left out one sentence where Hess said: And I’m sympathetic to most of the reforms we’re talking about.

Nor did I include a subsequent paragraph:

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m picking on today’s reformers. The same criticisms [about implementation] have been appropriately leveled at plenty of earlier efforts, including site-based management, block scheduling, equity lawsuits, busing, de-tracking, and much else. When pursued at scale, these efforts received well-deserved critiques for both frequently disappointing and for sometimes leaving lasting problems in their wake. 

Yeah, I was trying to fool the reader. Hess has been both mostly an advocate and occasional critic of these reform policies. And here in discussing the short-sightedness of reformers he hit the nail on the head except for one crucial point.

Hess says repeatedly that policymakers should have anticipated “implementation” problems with better crafted policies and careful forethought about what to expect in putting these ideas into practice. I agree. Yet I was startled by the absence of the word “teacher” in the entire piece. Teachers had to be involved in School Improvement Grants, teacher evaluation, and Common Core but in the post they are invisible. The closest that Hess comes to mentioning teachers is in the following paragraph:

What matters in education is what actually happens in 100,000 schools educating 50 million kids. That’s all implementation, and that means it matters a lot that some reforms are much more likely to suffer bumps, distortions, and problems than are others. The more complex they are, the further away they are from schools and families, the more dependent on intensive retraining–the more likely big ideas will suffer from “implementation problems.” Yet, I rarely find would-be reformers very interested in any of this, or what it portends. I find them much more intent on driving change from wherever they happen to be, using whatever levers they happen to control.

The first sentence tiptoes up to mentioning teachers but stops. To the rest of the paragraph, I say, amen.

He is certainly correct that policy implementation is the single most important aspect of the three reforms mentioned above (and all policies directed at changing what and how something is supposed to be taught). And he is correct that policymakers pay the least attention to it. Where he swings and strikes out is failing to say explicitly that knowledgeable and skilled teachers are critically important to putting any policy into practice.

Hess advises current reformers: Pay attention to implementation. Don’t whine. Do better next time. I would re-write that first piece of advice to say: pay attention to teachers and keep the rest.

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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-...