The Inexorable Cycles of School Reform

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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 erratically and unpredictably 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 before their eyes.

Here are phases of school reform in the U.S. that, over five decades, I have noted and recorded as an historian, policymaker, and practitioner in schools. While I offer the phases in order, keep in mind that the pace of each phase varies according to the nature of the proposed reform, when it occurs, where, the power of political coalitions, the caliber of educators implementing reforms and, of equal importance, how much the reform permeates popular and professional media. Keep in mind, however, that natural disasters, wars, political upheavals, and social movements disrupt the sequence.  The point is that these phases do not mechanically unfold in step-wise progression; nor do they occur at regular intervals and they often overlap. Given these cautions, here is what I have observed.

*Social, political, economic, and demographic changes create situations that opinion-elites define as problems. Examples are waves of immigration from Latin America and Asia since the 1980s. Or changes in the U.S.’s economic standing in the world community when the German economy and military expanded rapidly in the 1890s, Japanese products seized large sectors of domestic markets in the 1980s, or now China in the early 21st century. These economic changes fueled elite and popular opinion that fundamental changes in commerce and other institutions had to occur.

*Policymakers, academics, and opinion-makers such as corporate officials, civic leaders, and foundation presidents talk to one another and the media about these problems. 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 feasible. Here is where elites frame the problem and point to a solution to be found in better schools (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 programs to solve the problem (e.g.,common curriculum standards, testing and accountability regulations).

*Through various mechanisms (e.g., state and federal legislation, district school board decisions, foundation-funded programs), groups and individuals connected to schools come to be known as reformers. They press state and local school officials, principals and teachers to adopt and implement reforms (e.g., new reading and math programs, charter schools, small high schools, 1:1 laptops).

*Some policies get adopted. Laws (e.g., No Child Left Behind), district school board decisions (e.g., performance pay and anti-obesity programs), foundation-funded projects (e.g., technology integration across academic subjects, non-educator superintendents) become the 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 in some reformers’ minds, resistance to put reforms into practice appear. Unexpected outcomes (e.g., testing and accountability rules produce narrowed curriculum and teaching to the test) occur. 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).

*And then social, political, economic, and demographic changes in objectives conditions of life or in ideologies create situations that opinion-elites define as problems…. Here the return of the 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 phases have within it certain assumptions: Schools mirror society rather than change it;  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 educators who played no role in framing the problems or selecting the solutions; most policies are partially implemented and produce untoward and unanticipated consequences.

In my opinion, we have been in this cycle for at least for two decades and that we are in phase five of the current market-driven reforms (e.g., expanded parental choice of schools through charters and magnets, testing and accountability, common core curriculum, pay-for-performance, and teacher evaluation based on test scores). Perhaps readers may see the cycle of reform and its phases differently. Let me know, if you do.


Filed under Reforming schools

16 responses to “The Inexorable Cycles of School Reform

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Inexorable Cycles of School Reform | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. We are definitely at the return of the cycle especially since schools are revisiting decline. The calls for austerity in the public sector has put schools in very compromising situations. Slashed and defeated local budgets are causing school officials and boards to cutback personnel and programs that are marginalizing teachers and their unions. Meanwhile governors and commissioners are exerting more influence in the educational policy arena. As reform pushes forward, I worry most about teachers not being able to make sense of mandated policies in relationship to their teaching practices making change worthless. We’ll see how it works out.

  3. Cal

    Very good description. I would argue we actually first started this in the 1950s, with Sputnik. However, that cycle worked as it was “supposed” to. We identified the kids with promise, we sorted kids by ability, and everyone responded as expected–because schools were far more homogenous. Put another way–the Sputnik surge happened in “white” schools, not black ones.

    Second cycle was integration, in the 60s. The big push was to integrate schools; the assumption was that African American kids (and then Hispanics), put in the same schools, would be tracked in the same proportions. When it became clearer that they wouldn’t, the first effort (in the 70s) was to lower the standards for everyone (aka, the hippy dippy era). Alas, we chose that route at the same time we were losing global dominance, and the lowered standards as well as the continued failure to get results with under-represented minorities led to A Nation at Risk and the cycles you identify.

    The reason we’ve cycled so much more since integration is because we haven’t closed the achievement gap. We will continue to cycle until one of two things happen: a) the achievement gap closes or b) we quit focusing on the achievement gap. I suspect b is the more likely outcome.

    • larrycuban

      For the recent past–the last 50 years, Cal, I largely agree with you. On two points, however, I do not. First, these cycles of reform I date to the Common School movement in the early 1800s. Historians Carl Kaestle, Dave Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, and others show how these phases unfolded then over decades. Following that was the progressive education movement beginning in the 1880s and gaining traction in schools before World War I. Historians Tyack, Diane Ravitch, William Reese, and others document that movement.

      Secondly, all school reform cycles have speeded up including desegregation–not because, as you say, “we haven’t closed the achievement gap,” but because political participation in school reform has broadened considerably since the late-1960s and because of technological advances that have accelerated information flow among far more individuals wanting to transform schooling. So a reform cycle of the phases I described that used to take a decade or longer (e.g., effective schools) now is often telescoped into a couple of years (e.g., class size reduction, reading across the curriculum in secondary schools), before it disappears and another “new” reform replaces it.

  4. Cal

    I agree, of course, that reform goes back further than Sputnik (I was going to mention Thorndyke), but it seems to me that the cycle has changed. Maybe Sputnik was the last of the “old school” reforms (hyuk), or maybe what I see as a big difference is just a faster cycle.

    However, I think you underestimate the degree to which our obsession with the achievement gap drives educational policy.

  5. Laura H. Chapman

    I have just done an analysis of the Common Core State Standards Initiative of the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and managed by Achieve, Inc. an arm of the National Governors Assocation. I have also looked into Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). As a geezer who has also been through multiple reforms I am really impressed by the pay-to-play environments for lobbying set up by the these two groups. P21 is being absorbed by the CCSSO but the pattern of action is for corporations seeking federal funds to help write plug and play legislative briefs for clueless appointees to the Department of Education, and feed PR scripts to the press and create “momentum” with floods of “push” surveys designed to assert that the agenda(s) are backed by the public. Equally clueless foundations spread money to support these initiatives and pay for the phony and pony show. That is how the Department of Education had policies requiring states to have common standards and assessments before they were made public. That is how the idea of 21st learning skills got off the ground, nothing new except the technology bit, and lots ideas from checklists used by human resource experts. Not many whistle-blowers on the fact that the Department of Education has the largest discretionary budget in history operating with significant distain for public education.

    • larrycuban

      Have you published your analysis or is it available elsewhere?

      • Laura H. Chapman

        I work in the largely neglected field of arts education. I am working on a paper that deals with the Common Core State Standards Iniitiative. It is based on a Powerpoint presentation that I gave at a national conference of visual art eductors in mid-March. At near 76, I have had an academic lfe and don’t need to publish. The “thrill” of meeting APA and/or the Chicago Style Manual has vanished, and I do not have the perks of an institutional affiliationto assign such chores to grad students. In addition to these situational disincentives to publish, I have only twice tried for an AERA publication, rejected both times in part, because the editors daid the field of inquiry –arts education–is not sufficiently central in education (unless you make it the field, per Elliot Eisner). So , this thing may be develop into something like a monograph or book chapter, but I am reallly having a hard time retaining an “acceptable tone” for standard publication.

  6. Pingback: Why Educational Reform is Difficult to Enact during Decline « Politics of Decline, Redux

  7. I wonder if you would comment on reforms and policies, if you think they exist, that have (or do) let educators become involved in framing problems and solutions? If these exist and can be developed it seems we can push back on at least one of your assumptions. Would you agree? I’m thinking about schools run by teachers, teachers exercising choice of problems in a project-based curriculum, etc. Are there any other straws worth grasping and wouldn’t these tend to empower teachers (and students) in ways that the reforms you’ve named do not begin to approach?

    • larrycuban

      There have been moments in the past–not many, however–when teachers have been centrally involved in district-wide curriculum development from creating guides and lessons to putting them into practice in schools. See chapter 3 of How Teachers Taught on Denver public schools in the 1920s and 1930s. Also see David Gamson, “Historical Perspectives on Democratic Decision Making, 1920-2005,” in Moss, Pamela A. (ed.), Evidence and Decision Making: The 2007 Yearbook of
      the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE): pp.15-45.

      These historical examples and the ones that you cite, Jason, indicate that such teacher-led efforts have occurred and are now occurring but they are scattered. Surely, the teacher-bashing and anti-union sentiment that is prevalent now has made teacher collaboration and leadership to outflank such phases I described limit considerably the pushback you mention.

      • Thanks, Larry, for your perspective and suggestions. I just attended a Webinar from the Carnegie Foundation where Bryk and Gomez seem to have done an admirable job placing teachers’ issues at the center of their model, or more at the center. I saw a lot of repetition of old cycles in their work (hey, sometimes old knowledge is good knowledge) but inklings of new, or at least newly evolved ideas. Would you care to share your thoughts, hopefully constructive, regarding such initiatives or how they might be more successful?

  8. Megan

    I really appreciate this historical perspective on reform. As someone in the midst of implementing some reforms, seeing them within the larger context helps me to gain some perspective.

  9. Pingback: Continued Public Education Overhang: Structural Versus Cyclical Reform « Politics of Decline, Redux

  10. Pingback: Breaking Cycles is What I Do > The Future of Teaching

  11. Pingback: Exploring Compatibility Between Discontinuous Change and Schools as Organizations « Politics of Decline, Redux

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