Locating the Coordinates of U.S. School Reform in 2017

Where is the U.S. in school reform now?

To answer this question, I will do what lawyers often do when arguing a case. I will stipulate certain statements as facts. These statements may not sound like facts but as an historian and practitioner of school reform I claim they are.  Should readers quarrel with these statements, I do have supporting references and we can discuss those in dispute later. I stipulate the following:


Historically, school reformers have overstated defects in the existing system and made gloomy predictions of disaster. Then they have understated difficulties of changing the system by proposing rose-colored solutions.

Exhibit A is what has occurred over the past three decades in the U.S.

Market-inspired school reformers, endorsed by policy elites, media and parents, using low U.S. scores on international tests time and again, have blamed chronically low-performing public schools for hampering national economic growth, innovation, and productivity by  producing graduates mismatched to the job skills employers needed to compete in a constantly changing global marketplace.

To solve this serious problem of low academic performance and inadequately prepared graduates, state and federal officials have–between the early 1980s until 2015–created and legislated a federal and state reform agenda containing the following items:

*Common (and high) K-12 academic standards,

*State and national tests to determine if all students meet those standards,

*Student test scores as the primary metric to determine success of policies,

*Accountability regulations that hold districts, schools, students, and teachers responsible for results,

*Expanded parental choice, mainly through publicly financed charter schools,

*Deploy and use new technologies to get students to learn more, faster, and better.

*Teacher and administrator evaluation and compensation on the basis of student test scores.

Business and civic leaders, public polls, and  bipartisan policymakers endorsed this school reform agenda. The evidence, however, showing that this popular strategy has improved schooling for U.S. students, including minorities in urban districts or that skilled human capital has, indeed, led to national economic growth and an improved market position—remains seriously contested.

Moreover, with the U.S Congress and President dropping the No Child Left Behind Act and passing Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), of the seven items on the reform agenda, power has devolved to the states meaning that each item will be differentially implemented  across the nation. Only three remain: common curriculum standards–and that varies greatly among the states, the expansion of parental choice, and the ubiquity of new technologies in schools.


Of the multiple and competing economic, political and social purposes for public schools in a democracy, the economic aim of preparing students for a market-based democracy continues to dominate public schools in the 21st century.

In the early years of the 20th century, a business and civic coalition of educational progressives lobbied state and federal governments to create vocational schools and curricula  to prepare youth for industrial jobs. The federal government began subsidizing vocational courses during World War I. Progressive reformers created the comprehensive high school in the 1920s with multi-tracked curricula, including vocational education, that sorted students by their probable destination upon graduation into blue- and white-collar jobs.

By the 1970s, however, reformers were dismantling separate vocational curricula. While the comprehensive high school still exists, vocational education courses have migrated to community colleges and other venues.

Currently, the three-decade long concentration on schools as instruments for national economic growth has created a college prep curriculum for all students. The present market-inspired reform agenda, like the earlier movement for vocational education, has overwhelmed other collective purposes that have driven U.S schools since the 19th century.

Preparing youth for the labor market has competed with the public’s expectation to prepare children to participate politically and socially in the community, expand equal educational opportunity, and, at the same time, help individuals climb the social ladder to success. This last purpose of schools as a vehicle for social mobility has meant that parents see schools as an individually acquired consumer good to help their sons and daughters achieve success in life.

The economic purpose for tax-supported schooling—a public good–has dominated policy debates for well over a century and in the past three decades has joined social mobility, a private good, to suck out all the oxygen in any discussion of civic or other purposes for public schools.


Most reformers, the general public, and educators have yet to distinguish between cycles of policy talk and action from what actually happens to policies when they are put  into practice  in schools.

Policy talk refers to reformers’ cyclical rhetoric of gloomy assessments of schooling problems married to  over-confident solutions. Hyper-excited policy talk occurred over national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s; we hear echoes of it now with fears of Chinese economic and military hegemony in Asia. Ditto for policy talk about online instruction transforming U.S. schools and colleges in the 1960s, 1990s, and, now. Pronouncements from federal officials—take a look at the 2010 National Technology Plan—and for-profit companies promise a brave new high-tech world of individually tailored online learning, blending of face-to-face learning with online and the enactment of “personalized learning.”

In short, policy talk (either of the sort that says schooling has failed or its reverse side, an edutopian, high-tech solution) is hyperventilating rhetoric that we have heard repeatedly.

Policy action refers to the decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make in adopting policies to solve school problems. Examples range from school boards buying iPads for kindergartners to superintendents establishing new math programs to the U.S. Congress and President approving ESSA. Like policy talk, there have been cycles of adopting similar policies in phonics, dropouts, and technologies.

Policy implementation in schools, however, is not cyclical. It is linear. There are trends. Schools as institutions have structures, cultures, and history. Regularities in structures and culture change slowly and incrementally so that trend lines become noticeable over time.

Implementing new programs stretch out over five or more years. When researchers, for example, observe classrooms to see how computers are used by teachers in activities they find great variation across classrooms in the same school and among schools in the same district. Some teachers pick and choose elements of the program; others change policy by redesigning activities and lessons. Because of school culture and organizational realities, change is gradual and episodic. But trends do appear over time. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the hyperbole and gloom accompanying cyclical policy talk and action.

These three statements about historical patterns in school reform in 2017, I stipulate as facts answer the questions of where the U.S. is in school reform now.


Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “Locating the Coordinates of U.S. School Reform in 2017

  1. Paul Muench

    Fact 1

    Achievement gaps are overstated?

    Fact 2

    I’m not sure if you mean talk or action. The failure of the voucher agenda tells me there is still a lot of support for the public aspects of schools.

    Fact 3

    Value add evaluation of teachers is of doubtful use. The reason it gets so much attention is that parents believe what happens in the classroom is more important than anything else. Too bad more don’t understand the problems with these approaches.

    • Steve Davis

      RE: Fact 1

      The achievement gap is not overstated; however, the cause of the achievement gap has more to do with poverty than the failings of America’s public schools.

      “Researchers for the National Association for Secondary School Principals disaggregated the PISA results by income and made some stunning discoveries. Take a look at this link (“PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid”). It shows that American students in schools with low poverty rates were first in the world when they were compared with students in nations with comparably low poverty levels. Thus, the picture painted by doomsayers about American education is false in this respect. We have many outstanding schools and students, but our overall performance is dragged down by the persistence of poverty. Poverty depresses school achievement because it hurts children, families, and communities.”

      • Paul Muench

        Sure, there are factors outside of school that matter. But the statement that out-of-school factors matter more than in-school factors is debatable. My reading of W. Norton Grubb’s “The Money Myth” says there are serious thinkers who believe in-school factors matter more than out-of-school factors. So even if schools can’t resolve the whole achievement gap they may still be the best place to focus resources.

      • Steve Davis

        I would like to know more about W. Norton Grubb’s ideas concerning the “serious thinkers [that] believe in-school factors matter more than out-of-school factors.” I don’t have access to Grubb’s book, but a cursory reading of his work leads me to believe that most of his ideas are about money in regards to school funding. As Grubb says in the Huffington Post, “Since the 19th century, we’ve been told that money alone will improve school outcomes and that to reform schools, all we need is more money. That’s the money myth. And it’s just plain wrong.” The blurb for Grubb’s book, The Money Myth, says, “The greatest inequalities in America’s schools lie in factors other than fiscal support.” Sounds to me like Grubb is making the case that infusing more money into school will not lead to improved learning. I haven’t seen any of his thoughts that address the effects of in-school vs. out-of-school factors.

  2. Thanks Larry, Interestingly many of the points you make resonate on this side of the pond.

    Much of our reform agenda is driven by supply side reforms predicated on the disputed Hoxby research, an ideological prefernce for the private sector and of course the PISA tables.

    We do have a focus on teaching with the production of the White Paper.

    I am over at Stanford in the summer,visiing my friend John Pearson so perhaps we could have a chat and explore some US/UK comparisons over lunch in the Faculty club:)

  3. Lovely summation. However, I was surprised by the framing of ‘social mobility’ as a ‘private good’ pursued by parents. Perhaps, this is because I am – or was – an adult educator with commitments to social mobility as a matter of social justice – a public good.

    • Should add I live in Australia, not US. Hence possible explanation of the difference in ,public goods,.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Rob. Parental push for their children succeeding in life through credentials and entering careers that pay well is the pursuit of private advantage since it directly benefits the individual son or daughter with possible social benefits to others. Seeking social mobility for all to decrease existing racial, ethnic, and class inequities is surely worthwhile and valuable but, to me, does not make it a public good—tax-supported public schools, parks, roads, hospitals, etc.

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