Parsing the Meaning of School Reforms

“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.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 3, 2010

In this quote on a new federal technology plan, the rhetoric of school reform, dating back nearly two centuries, again contrasts “tinkering”—a bad idea–with “fundamental” change—definitely a good idea. Past and present, this has been a common rhetorical move with major consequences especially now when billions of dollars are involved. In this and subsequent posts I want to parse these two basic notions of reform.

Most teachers, principals, and superintendents have had many experiences with classroom, school, and district reforms that they have initiated or that have been hurled at them. Practitioners can tell stories of both exhilarating and botched efforts. Contrary to popular claims that schools are traditional institutions that hardly ever change, those who work daily in schools or study the history of school reform can testify to many changes.

Certainly, many reforms or planned changes disappear after awhile but some innovations do get incorporated into routine classroom and school operations. At one time, for example, there were one-room schoolhouses; today the age-graded school dominates. At one time, teachers taught the entire class as one group; today teachers use small groups, independent work, and large-group instruction. Nonetheless, popular and pundit opinion has it that schools seldom change and when they do practitioners get criticized for not changing more frequently and moving in particular directions. Why is that?

To put it bluntly: Americans believe that change is good. We need look no further than commonplace patterns that pervade our daily lives. Car models change every year. Elections move public officials in and out of office every few years. And Americans love to move from where they were reared to other places. Change, then, is common; it is no big deal.

Not only is change seen as worthwhile, many Americans also confuse change with improvement. They are different concepts. When a married couple divorces, one spouse sees it as joyful emancipation and the other as a tragedy. The divorce qualifies as a change but each spouse views it dramatically different. Change is not necessarily improvement; improvement is in the head of the beholder.

Translated to public schools, planned changes that were meant to strengthen schools and classrooms are implemented but few clear improvements emerge or are sustained—think charters, vouchers, computers. High expectations shrivel. Reforms are seen as failures.

So, for example, teachers are blamed for being opposed to reform when their fellow Americans see it as a prized “good,” one that automatically leads to improvement. Keeping this explanation in mind (and it is not the only one that can be offered but will do for now), I will concentrate on different kinds of planned changes that have occupied practitioners for decades.

To understand the deeper meanings of past and current efforts to change schools and classroom teaching and to connect broad policies of school improvement with classrooms, I distinguish between two kinds of reform: incremental and fundamental.

Incremental changes—what Duncan calls “tinkering”–aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

These incremental changes would fit U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pejorative word “tinkering.” The next post will take up the notion of “fundamental” changes.


Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “Parsing the Meaning of School Reforms

  1. Bob Calder

    How about the corollary of memory?

    I often consider the role of institutional memory in terms of teaching. Mostly in terms of institutional alzheimers.

  2. David B. Cohen

    Thanks for posting this, Larry. The confusion between change and improvement is the main reason that I think many teachers find themselves painted as obstructionists, and we need to do a better job of communicating about the incremental changes we engage in to keep more fundamental changes from being forced on us. I’m not necessarily opposed to fundamental change, but it should follow from consensus rather than being imposed.

    I hope you’ll stop by my blog sometime. InterACT is a group blog under the wing of SUSE and the Ntl. Board Resource Center, with multiple STEP grads (including me, class of ’95).

  3. LK

    Great post. I made a longer analysis of it on my blog if you’re interested.

  4. Larry, in paragraph five you say, “Change is not necessarily improvement . . .” I agree with you there 100%. But in paragraph one you say, ““fundamental” change—definitely a good idea.” Isn’t there a glaring conflict between these two? How can you say with no qualification whatsoever that fundamental change is definitely a good idea? What fundamental change? Fundamental change is only good if it is good, and that has nothing to do with being fundamental or not.

    Of course I can easily see how you would explain this. You favor good change, not bad, and so do I, but it seems like you are using the language and rhetoric of those who are suckers for the latest educational fad. I’ll admit you’re in good company. “Change” is a valuable buzzword in politics. It gets a lot of votes, but not mine. I think we should be much more discriminating.

    Just what fundamental change do you think is definitely a good idea? I’m not saying you’re right or wrong. I’m just wondering. It is not obvious. Perhaps you’ll clear it all up in your next post.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Brian,

      Yes, it certainly does look that I contradict myself but I do not. When I refer to “fundamental change” is “a good idea” I am referring to the Arne Duncan quote in the epigraph. It is not my opinion. It is my take on Duncan’s embrace of fundamental change.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. I see how I had misinterpreted who was saying what.

    All my life I have been aware politicians can get political advantage by indiscriminately calling for change. I presume that works because individuals listening will fill in the blanks with their choice of what that change should be. I also presume Arne Duncan is being purely the politician in his choice of words. I am not aware of any fundamental change in American education that I would support. But I’m open to ideas.

  6. “To put it bluntly: Americans believe that change is good.”

    Well, to put it even more bluntly, Americans believe that change is good until it happens to *them*.

  7. An even more insidious, and un-debated principle impacting heavily on both children and teachers in schools, is the idea that “innovation” is inherently good.

    I recall listening to a Canadian speaker at a conference in the UK speaking about the immense power of technology to change everything, and his entire presentation was predicated on the belief (for what else is it?) that innovation is always good. When I asked him at question time, if he thought innovation was always good, he was visibly puzzled and had clearly never even stopped to ask himself the question. After a lengthy pause he said, “Gee, I guess so.”

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