Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: “Transform” Public Schools: Stop Using an Over-hyped Word
We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students. U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010
Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes…. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta, 2021
Three Ways Technology is Transforming Education Qualcomm ad in Education Week, February 9, 2022
If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get just over a half-billion hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 1, 400,000,000 hits (as of March 12, 2023). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of over-hyped words in reformers’ vocabulary.
The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.
But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes. But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:
This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; over a century later, about 85 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization and structure that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).
Think about the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation is now apparent (see here and here).
Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what they mean.
1. What does “transform” mean to you?
Sometimes I use above images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person I’m asking the question.
2. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?
Is the problem U.S. academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?
3. What exactly is to be transformed? School structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?
Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”
4. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?
This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s values about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.” Also the question shows clearly the multiple and divergent goals that policymakers, parents, teachers, administrators, and wannabe reformers seek. Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.
5. How fast should the “transformation” be?
Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.
6. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?
Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the picture of a better school.
So, if readers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean.
And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.
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