Wanted for Urban Schools: Fewer Amnesiac Policymakers-Part 1

Most policy entrepreneurs suffer from amnesia. Listen to what two Harvard professors said after working with Washington top and mid-level decision-makers in the 1970s. “We sensed around us—in our classes, in the media, in Washington—a host of people who did not know any history to speak of and were unaware of suffering any lack, who thought the world was new and all of its problems fresh … and that decisions in the public realm required only reason and emotion….” (Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, The Free Press, 1986, pp. xi-xii).

My nearly five decades of working with urban school boards, superintendents, and federal and state policymakers lead me to a similar conclusion for educational decision-makers. The past is a foreign country that these decision-makers seldom visit and when they do, hardly remember what occurred.

Few policymakers are familiar with the history of urban districts and how they evolved through absorbing waves of earlier immigrants as well as past efforts to improve schooling for the poor. Instead these policy brokers draw from personal experiences while soaking up juicy stories others tell about schools. In ignoring earlier efforts at urban school reform, they either substitute their own pictures of what they think happened or they assume that nothing can be learned from the past because current conditions differ so much from conditions then (or they do both). They err.

Surely, there are no exact lessons to be drawn from particular reform episodes because while events may appear similar across two points in time—the failures of banks in the early 1930s and federal takeover of key commercial and investment banks in 2008—the contexts and consequences differ. But historical trends and patterns of behavior in urban districts do exist; knowing how and why those patterns emerged can be instructive to decision-makers. How, for example, did all public and private schools become age-graded and why have they been so for 150 years? Why have most teachers used textbooks decade after decade? Why do chronically low-performing urban schools appear again and again? Why is it so hard to deal with race and poverty in classroom teaching? Answers to these questions reveal the stability of urban schooling over time.

These enduring institutional structures and patterns of teacher and administrator behavior are anchored deeply in the financial and political dependence of tax-supported schools upon its communities and the powerful social beliefs and expectations parents, taxpayers, and voters have about what public schools ought to be doing with children and youth. Few urban school reformers acknowledge that Americans want public schools to achieve multiple, often conflicting, goals for children.

Historian William Reese summed up these many competing goals for public schools:

“Schools are expected to feed the hungry, discipline the wayward, identify and encourage the talented, treat everyone alike while not forgetting that everyone is an individual, raise test scores but also feelings of self-worth, ensure winning sports teams without demeaning academics, improve standards but also graduation rates, provide for the different learning styles and capacities of the young while administering common tests, and counter the crass materialism of the larger society while providing the young with the skills and sensibilities to thrive in it as future workers.” (William Reese, History, Education, and the Schools,(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 159).

When urban school reformers, however, fumble decade after decade in grappling with largely poor and minority low-performing schools then these competing goals, social beliefs, and institutional structures are no longer trivial nuisances to be dismissed but central to analyzing why and how urban school reform goes awry and forging creative ways to improve schools and classrooms.

We need fewer uninformed urban policymakers frantically churning out reform after reform because, if they don’t, they will exit the district. We need more mindful, not mindless, plans informed by the past that have room for necessary adaptations and contains careful analysis of which incremental changes make the most sense to those who do the daily work—teachers and students.

In short, policymakers with amnesia need not apply for work in schools. Yet they do and get hired. And when they make decisions, invariably they commit frequent errors all in the blessed name of more and more reform. I take up these frequent mistakes in the next post.


Filed under Reforming schools

3 responses to “Wanted for Urban Schools: Fewer Amnesiac Policymakers-Part 1

  1. Jay Fogleman

    Amnesia on the part of organization leaders, especially those just arriving from outside the district, is an important contributor to the difficulties faced in urban schools. Your quote of Reese is also critical. Given the complexity of the mission of public schools, I would expect that reforms efforts focusing on a single purpose of schools, e.g. improving test scores, that ignore the other roles that schools are expected to play, are doomed to experience tepid buy-in at the school and family levels. Historically, are the examples of more enlightened approaches to urban education reform that these leaders can learn from?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Jay,

      Yes, there are folks who see (and have seen) urban school reform both historically and in larger terms than “Amnesiac policymakers.” They range from Tom Payzant, former Boston superintendent, to James Comer to Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children Zone in the present to Ella Flagg Young in Chicago before World War I.

  2. Delighted to see you quoting a fellow Palgrave author, but more seriously, the failure to have a historical perspective goes hand in hand with a culture of innovation which never stops to think what actually already works. I’ve been amazed at the way in the UK, central and local government has proceeded headlong down a road of “improvement” and “transformation” without ever once, to my knowledge, discussing with the truly great schools and teachers that exist, what they do and how they do it.

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