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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Why Do School Reforms Occur Again and Again?

School reforms unfold less like an auto engine piston pumping up and down within a cylinder and more like a large weather front of uncertain origin moving across a region. Reforms, like weather fronts varying by seasons but similar across years, go through phases that become familiar if observers note historical patterns and, in our speeded-up, multi-tasking culture, record what occurs. And most important, school reforms, like weather fronts, recur.

As a historian of schooling, I have noted phases of school reform in the U.S. over the past century that policymakers and practitioners have experienced. While I offer these stages in sequential order, keep in mind that the pace of each phase varies according to the nature of the proposed reform, when it occurs, how much reform talk permeates popular and professional media, which political coalitions push the reforms, and, of crucial importance, widespread acceptance of the reforms by those charged to implement them.

Keep in mind, however, that pandemics, wars, political upheavals, and social movements disrupt the sequence. Moreover, there are over 13,000 school districts in the nation (California has about 1,000). Finally, unlike France, Italy, Spain, China, and Russia, there is no national ministry of education that funds these districts or issues mandates for educators to follow. The point is that in such a decentralized system of schooling, these phases do not mechanically unfold in step-wise progression across the country. Rather they occur in the quasi-random fashion akin to a children’s game of tag.

Given these cautions, here is what I have observed about the origin and spread of school reforms that recur time and again over the past century.

*Social, political, economic, and demographic changes create situations that opinion-elites define as problems. By the 1890s through World War II, the U.S.’s economy grew dramatically and demands for skilled (not unskilled workers) grew. Employers wanted high school graduates who were literate and had skills that could be applied to surging new industries. Or consider that in the the 1970s, Japanese and German products seized large sectors of domestic markets requiring American industry and businesses to restructure their operations to compete internationally.

After World War II, waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America have made the U.S. a culturally diverse nation. The Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) shifted policy from a quota system on different nationalities favoring western Europe to a focus on reuniting families and welcoming skilled immigrants. By the 2020 census, the U.S. had become no longer a largely white nation but a multi-racial democracy.

*Policymakers, academics, and opinion-makers such as corporate officials, civic leaders, and foundation presidents talk to one another and the media about these problems. Over time, these demographic and socio-economic changes fueled political opinion elites to find ways that American institutions might politically remedy these emerging problems. National commissions issue reports and a consensus–what David Tyack and I have called “policy talk”–begins to grow about what the real problems are and which solutions are politically feasible.

Here is where elites frame the problem and very often point to improving schools as a solution (e.g., The Nation at Risk, 1983). This process historically is what David Labaree has called “educationalizing” national problems (e.g., childhood obesity, racial segregation, poverty).

*Groups and individuals (elite entrepreneurs, political officials, foundation leaders, special interest groups, community organizations, unions, etc.) develop policy proposals and school programs to solve the problem (e.g.,common curriculum standards, more tests and accountability regulations). Through various mechanisms (e.g., state and federal legislation, district school board decisions, foundation-funded programs), groups and individuals such as corporate leaders, philanthropists, governors, and mayors come to be known as school reformers. State and local school officials, spurred often by media attention, push particular policies that become known as “reforms” (e.g., new reading and math programs, charter schools, small high schools, 1:1 laptops).

*Some of these policies get adopted. Laws (e.g., the federal No Child Left Behind Act), district school board decisions (e.g., four-day school week, performance pay and anti-obesity programs), foundation-funded projects (e.g., technology integration across academic subjects) become the new wallpaper of reform. Superintendents, principals, and teachers attempt to incorporate these new policies, programs and innovations into routine practice in districts, schools, and classrooms.

*Growing criticism of educators’ seemingly slow, halfhearted efforts or resistance to put reforms into practice appears. Unexpected outcomes occur (e.g., testing and accountability rules produce narrowed curriculum and teaching to the test; funding for new programs lags and budgets shrink). Reform promoters’ enthusiasm gives way to disappointment, annoyance, and even anger toward educators (e.g., uptick in overt hostility to teachers and their unions, higher turnover among superintendents and principals). Schools and teachers come under attack.

*And then different social, political, economic, and demographic changes create situations that opinion-elites define as problems…. And it is here that another cycle begins.

For readers over the age of 50 who have worked in schools for at least two decades or observed them as students and later as parents may find these phases familiar. If they do, they may also note that these cycles have within them certain commonalities:

*Policy elites mobilize individuals and groups to take action by framing problems, picking solutions, and getting policies adopted;

*Putting policy into practice is utterly dependent upon superintendents, principals, and teachers who played little to no role in framing problems or selecting solutions;

*Most policies, particularly those targeting changes in how teachers teach, are implemented partially and occasionally produce unanticipated consequences in classrooms.

In my opinion, we remain within another cycle of standards-based reforms dating back to A Nation at Risk report (1983). Since then a cascade of reform-driven policies slowly rolled out in familiar phases over the nation’s public schools including a Common Core curriculum, expanded parental choice of schools through charter schools, increased testing and accountability protocols. Even after the Covid-19 school closures, the slow growth of remote instruction has become another tool in maintaining standards-based reforms of the past four decades.

Perhaps readers may see these phases of school reform and commonalities differently. Let me know, if you 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-...