So Much Hype, So Little Mindfulness: The Practical Importance of Knowing the Logic of a Reform-Driven Policy

100 dollar laptop: production prototype

Image via Wikipedia

Getting behind the brand names of school reform is hard work. Few of us try. KIPP, Green Dot, Teach for America, and One Laptop Per Child are all reform brands. Some are untarnished, well known and admired. Others, well, have become shabby. Of course, buying brand-names is what consumers do daily as a mental short-cut, a way of short-circuiting homework on less well known products. The thinking is: Brand-name product=quality

Reform brand-names, however, go in and out of style swiftly–how many remember the “open classroom” or “Malcolm Baldrige Awards for Excellence in Performance?” There is even a more serious problem with reform labels like “small high schools,” “charter schools,” and “pay-4-performance.” The reform label often masks what the designers assumed when they came up with the idea. Few policymakers, parents, practitioners, for example, ever ask: What are the assumptions behind this reform?

In asking that question, others quickly come to mind: what are the problems this reform is expected to solve? What are the reform’s goals? What are strategies are invoked to accomplish the reform? What are the expected outcomes?

Answers to these questions will determine if the policy is coherent, logically consistent, and has a chance of being put into practice in actual classrooms. In other words, these questions ask the champions of the policy to state clearly their assumptions about what goes on in schools and classrooms. I, for one, like my policymakers to be clothed in logic, evidence, and internally-consistent arguments that principals and teachers can implement when decision-makers say a particular reform is a “must have” for all children. In short, parsing the logic of the reform, its goals, assumptions, strategies, and outcomes, is essential to figuring out what to look for in classrooms to see if reform is working and whether it is practical for teachers and students.


I have used graphic designs of reforms and their policy logic as teaching tools for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and graduate students. Variously named as “theories of action” or “policy logic,” I use these diagrams to plumb the innards of a policy to determine its logic and usefulness in the real world of schools. The diagrams I have crafted answer the above questions and reveal publicly the thinking that went into the design of the reform.

As one example, I offer the logic of reform-driven policies aimed at buying and deploying computers in school. Readers of this post need to click onto “causal theory of computers [v6)”

While details will clearly differ from one district to another, the “theory of action” behind getting electronic devices into classroom use should apply to the policy logic that dominates most districts. I will devote the rest of this entry to the goals and assumptions, the strategies used, and the outcomes sought from computers in schools.

Begin at the top of the “causal theory of computers” diagram where I list three goals. After reading most of the literature published by districts on why they have bought desktops, laptops, and an arsenal of business-designed applications and educational software, these three emerge as most important. Note how they are wired to underlying assumptions that policymakers make in pursuing these goals: increased access to machines leads to increased use which, in turn, leads to desired outcomes. Outcomes are listed at the bottom of the diagram. Note, again, how these outcomes mirror the goals at the top of the diagram. Then there are the assumptions driving the dominant teacher-based strategies: Supplying sufficient professional development and technical support will lead to increased classroom use. All of these assumptions about access=use=outcomes and what strategies to use drive current policies of buying and deploying school electronic hardware and software.

Some readers, however, may not like the simplicity (or simple-mindedness?) of how I analyzed the logic of the reform. It isa stark version of technological determinism. It fails to capture the complexity of policymaking. They may point out that while most policymakers talk at length about the importance of students using computers in classrooms and future success in the labor market, very few speak openly about their assumptions about teaching, learning, and what the work world will be like a decade from now.

So why do I make a big deal out of policymaker silence about their assumptions? Because these deterministic assumptions drive the adoption and implementation of the reform. These assumptions reveal the thinking that spells the difference between what might or might not happen in schools and classrooms.

And that is my point. Getting underneath brand-name reforms is hard work. I want my leaders to make explicit their assumptions about any reform they are branding as high quality, one that they say will improve schools, teaching, learning, and the lives of students now and in decades to come.



Filed under school reform policies

12 responses to “So Much Hype, So Little Mindfulness: The Practical Importance of Knowing the Logic of a Reform-Driven Policy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention So Much Hype, So Little Mindfulness: The Practical Importance of Knowing the Logic of a Reform-Driven Policy « Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. Larry – very important message; I wish people like Gates and Soros would read it. What you say could be applied also to well-meaning but uninformed philanthropists like Melinda Gates, who just pledged millions to eradicate jungle diseases about 200 km from Bhubaneswar; yet Bhubaneswar continues to suffer power cuts and a dearth of internet ready computers in the schools, where just one power point capable computer would be welcome. In fact, we haven’t made the leap yet to chalkboards.
    Louise in Bhubaneswar, Orissa

    • larrycuban

      Foundation-driven reforms, as the one you mentioned near you, Louise, often do get vetted by officials going through a similar “logic of the reform” tool as I laid out in the post. Still, the decision is made to go forward on grounds other than flawed, even foolish, assumptions, insufficient evidence, or simple incoherence. Rational decision-making, it turns out, is just one of many factors that go into such decisions.

  3. Brian Hirst

    On the national level, we have a President and Secretary of Education who have not done the rigorous work of analyzing the hype. The same is probably true at state levels with governors and legislators. At the local level, you won’t see, IMHO, analyzing from school boards or superintendents or other administrators. And, when teachers’ unions argue against the latest brand names in reform, they are seen as mearly wanting to maintain their (imagined) less than effective status. Bleh!

  4. Erick Wilberding

    I like the analysis, your probing for underlying assumptions, connective logic, and evidence. Living abroad, I am struck by the necessity of packaging scholastic reforms with slogans and by the enormous self-interested role of business. A more explicit and nuanced discussion never takes place.

    Here in Italy, where public scholastic reform is imposed by the government without so much discussion (unfortunately), there is not this business element. The discussion there is, though, is more rooted in values and a larger vision of the purpose of education that transcends a desire for greater economic competitiveness.

    It really seems that the structure of education in the United States has become so monstrously vast and varied, its ideals imperfectly articulated and grasped, that the idea of reform remains perpetually attractive and marketable–even as the process works rather smoothly at the elite level. Frankly, I am not familiar with all the reforms you have mentioned.

    The problem, really, is that educational reform often entails wider ranging social reforms about which there is no political consensus.

    Then more questions: Is instant access to information really learning more quickly? Was education ever so centered upon locating information? Is this not the apotheosis of the need for rote memorization and its glorification of facts?

    Can I give my 2 cents? The best reform would be to divide secondary schools into humanistic and scientific schools, and narrow the number of subjects studied within those two types. The curriculum would have four subjects. One hundred years ago the classics had to give up their place for the sciences. Other subjects now need to be assimilated within a science curriculum. With the expansion of scientific knowledge and the need for scientific literacy, more space needs to be found. For example, teach English skills through science texts. Teach ethics through problems in science. Developments in science continue so fast, the literacy cannot be developed in the traditional template. People are staying in school longer.

    Science can be a complete educational meal, if thought through. Often cooperative in its process, science encompasses problem-solving and a real-life application. It has an important philosophical dimension. It is historically rooted. It requires language skills and has an interesting literature in prose and poetry. The present curriculum doesn’t do it justice.

    I don’t think of the open classroom as a fad. I think its ideals have taken root in many places.

    Erick Wilberding, Art Historian, Rome

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your thoughts about U.S. education as filtered through your lens as an art historian and now living in Italy. What you propose as curriculum reform has been proposed in various forms over the past century. Thanks for the comment.

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  6. Dear Larry, I am interested in translating your “Theory of Action for Putting ICT into U.S. Schools” to incorporate into an article I am writing for a Brazilian conference. I think the cycle, with minor changes, represents what happens here as well. I am unsure what permissions you grant on your work. Would you mind if I do so and cite the source? Cheers.

    • larrycuban

      Sure, you have my permission to translate the Theory of Action for Putting ICT into U.S. Schools. Please cite the post in my blog.

  7. Pingback: What changes? What stays the same? | School Change

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Tom and Deirdre, for using Tinkering, mentioning my blog and using a video of a talk I gave. That may be too much Larry for most students.

  8. Pingback: 5: How might schools change? – School Change

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