On Changing One’s Mind about Schooling

In Diane Ravitch’s new book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System), she tells of her recent switch from championing school reforms (testing, accountability, and choice) as a federal policymaker, educational historian, and pundit to rejecting these policies. Ravitch’s turnaround got me thinking about what I had believed earlier in my career and believe now fifty years later.

I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. between the early 1960s and mid-1970s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve, I do not. That passionate idealism about teaching and the role that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to those long days working as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night.

That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 to teach Peace Corps returnees how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities.

I worked in programs that trained young teachers to teach in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.

I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during those years. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the mid-1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms others and I had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.

After leaving D.C., my subsequent work as a superintendent, high school teacher, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. Most important, I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S., I concluded, maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth .

The irony, of course, is that current policymakers from President Obama through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. Knowledge gained from decades of experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform.

Yet, I must also say that those very same experiences have tempered but not dissolved my early idealism. I still believe that content-smart and classroom-wise teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in individual students’ lives even if collectively they cannot cure societal ills.


Filed under school reform policies

9 responses to “On Changing One’s Mind about Schooling

  1. Dear Mr. Larry Cuban,

    Thank you for your testimony. It’s rare, among researchers or best-sellers, such a way of saying in the first person. Such a teacher, you were and you are. I feel sorry for my English doesn’t allow me express other ideas about the theme of change or innovation of schooling. I’m preparing my master in education and I just became a reader of your thoughts.



  2. Pingback: What do we do for third tier schools? « Moving at the Speed of Creativity

  3. Becky "Burrow" Martinez

    Hi Larry,

    Having attended the recent NBC’s Education Summit rich in rheotoric around the importance of replicability in reforms, I found the conversations limited to academic proficiencies and college readiness. However, it seems no one is talking anymore about to what end we are doing all of this.

    I will soon join members of the instructional team at my school to prioritize and streamline what we do, and from your class I know how important it is to explicitly identify what our common vision is for the school…or else we run the risk of framing problems with different visions in mind.

    I too believe that public education is the final frontier of The Civil Rights Movement and the end to which I engage in this work is social transcendence. Literacy yields power in historically oppressed populations so that they may civically and democratically engage and become change agents in our society. However, we must also be willing to contextualize our literacy lessons within tasks that simultaneously teach those democratic capacities.

    I feel as though this disposition from which that I engage in this work is dwindling among my education colleagues, and it is breaking my heart. It’s heart warming to know that, while “tempered” you still believe.

    Thanks again for providing inspiration!
    -Becky “Burrow” Martinez

  4. Thomas Webster

    As a second-language teacher for the past 15 years, I share your skepticism toward school reform. In fact, I just completed my PhD research — which looked at teachers’ perspectives and uses of technology in their teaching — and concluded, among other things, that teachers essentially are being dictated to, limited and judged by outsiders who know/care little about the real learning and progress of students. However, I still believe that Dewey is/was essentially right about education’s ability to transform society. The problem is that real education isn’t occurring in the classroom anymore (if it ever was). Internet-based technologies have usurped the monopoly of education by those less scrupulous players in institutions and it is only a matter of time before the skin of middle and tertiary formal education desiccates to reveal the lack of substance within the system. I think some reformers in the business world see this and are excited about the potential for full commercial control of institutions in the not-so distant future. As an educator and father, I am spurred on with the thought of combating their advance and in making education more consistent with young-people’s real learning needs both now and in the future. This is what Dewey meant when he said that learning should be “in harmony with principles of growth” rather than institutionally-approved “selection and arrangement of subjects and methods” that have little to do with the lives and needs of students (Experience and education, 1938, p. 30).

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments on the post where I described my personal journey in school reform and my skepticism of anyone talking about schools being in the vanguard of social reform, as John Dewey once put it. The uses of technology in schools, a subject you have studied, is a case in point, as you noted. Your resolve as an educator to focus on the Deweyan principle of learning fitting children’s growth is both worthy and admirable, in my opinion.

      • Thomas Webster


        Many thanks for your reply; I appreciate your wonderful passion for education after all these years and particularly in your willingness to keep the dialog running on this site.

        I am curious how you think Dewey might respond to the concept of the “information society” and particularly as presented by Peter Drucker. I enjoy discussing this topic with other teachers but many simply respond that the concept is part of a business framing of education and that they want nothing to do with viewing students as “customers” and teachers as providers of an “educational product”. I agree in principle, but I worry that teachers often retreat from and even abhor technology to some degree because of its commercial aspects. I think by doing this, they allow outside business interests and administrations to take control and dovetail technology’s potential into their own gains rather than using it to make their teaching more relevant.

        In my view, this has always been the problem with formal education: is it essentially there to teach everyone to behave as Ivan Illich and others would have it or can it exist without the lumbering administrative restraints and structure that we have assigned to all institutions?

        I have a notion that Dewey would not view the information society as he did the progressive schools or dismiss it owing to its commercial aspects. I believe that he would see the potential of technology to help students grow both in and out of the classroom and would be trying to promote technology use in formal education in a way that was practical to the lives of the students as he did with his laboratory schools.

        Many thanks again,

      • larrycuban

        Of course,guessing what John Dewey would support and in what ways is, at best, speculative and, at worse, putting words in his mouth that we would like to hear. Keeping that in mind, my take on Dewey and technology in schools is that to the degree that specific tools further children’s growth intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically and teachers integrate them into the learning experiences that students have in school, he would support their use; he would not make a distinction between the tool and the experience.

        I also recall somewhere that Dewey saw teaching as selling and learning as buying.If my memory holds on that, Dewey saw what occurs between teacher and student over content and skills as a metaphorical exchange between vendors and customers.

  5. I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I have one question: how can the “content-smart and classroom-wise” teacher make a significant difference when his/her hands are tied by a mandated test-prep curriculum that allows for little or no innovation and that squelches teacher-student spontaneity?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the important question that you ask. Although what I say may not resonate with you, the experienced and committed teacher you describe does have ways of dealing with “mandated test-prep curriculum.” Those ways, however, put the burden squarely on the shoulders of those “classroom wise teachers.” One is to raise those issues with other like-minded teachers in the building or outside of the school and mobilize others to find ways of combining test prep with content and skills that students need; another is to use the test-prep for small portions of the week rather than every day; another is to find another place to teach where what you have to offer students goes well beyond test prep.

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