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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: “Transform” Schools: Hyped Language Weakens Reform

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

If you enter “transform schools” in a Google search you will get just over a quarter-billion hits October 23, 2023). As the frequency of the phrase and the quotes above suggest, the word “transform” combined with “schools” hits the jackpot of over-hyped words in reformers’ vocabulary. Hyped language weakens reform efforts by cloaking the hard work and especially the time it takes to alter substantially school and classroom practices.

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 slower. Humans manufacture changes. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that turn mediocre schools into “better” ones.

This post, then, is about my allergy to over-used, pumped-up words and especially how meaningless they have become among reform-driven policymakers and practitioners. Keep in mind, however, that historically there indeed have been evidence-rich “transformations” in schooling.

One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century, for example, 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; a century later, over 75 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).

While instances of “transforming” schools can be documented, my allergy remains. As a result, when policymakers, researchers, practitioners, high-tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, or parents ask me how best I would “transform” schools, I ask certain questions about what they mean:

1. What does “transform” mean to you?

Sometimes I use images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man or the above one of a butterfly) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person using the phrase.

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? Or is it low rates of student participation in classroom lessons?

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 sought after outcomes?

This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools seeks. 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 reveals clearly the multiple and divergent goals that policymakers, parents, teachers, administrators, and wannabe reformers have for public schools. Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.

5.  How fast should the “transformation” be?

Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools want speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Few seek to make changes slowly or in small increments.

Consider what occurred with the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act (1964) 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.” However, 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 reappeared (see here and here).

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. Finding out what happened as a result of the changes (provided the changes were put into practice) is, of course, essential.

So, if readers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in making and implementing policy, 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 how long such changes really take. And then just maybe I will stop sneezing when the words appear.


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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-...