The Upside and Downside of Urban School Reform

Based on my school and district experiences and research into urban reform strategies over the past quarter-century to improve schools, I have concluded the following:

*Most urban districts, either with or without mayoral control, have centralized control of schools through state standards and testing, offered parents a portfolio of choices in elementary and secondary schools, and intensified traditional ways of schooling children.

*While some national leaders call for overhauling the existing system reform  most reformers have sought incremental changes in existing school structures. In fact, acclaimed entrepreneurial ventures such as Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) use the rhetoric of fundamental reform but choose to work within district structures while pressing for small, important policy changes. [i]

The good news is that some top-down strategies have worked in some districts for a while. Many urban districts, using standards-based accountability strategies, for example, have raised the percentages of students testing proficient in reading and math in the elementary grades. Since 2002, the Broad Prize for Urban Education has awarded one million dollars for improving academic achievement to Houston, Long Beach (CA), and other big city districts[ii]

There is bad news, however. None of these top-down reform strategies, alone or in combination, have overcome stubborn challenges to raise test scores consistently over time and close the achievement gap between minorities and whites. Consider:

 Partial implementation of top-down reforms. To convert existing high schools into small ones, for example, requires time, re-directed resources, sensitivity to different school settings, and extensive logistics. Because of insufficient knowledge, limited time and staffing, skimpy funding of teacher support, leaders lacking political will, or negligible community aid (or some mix of these), putting these strategies into practice often omits one or more of these key components.

Partially baked breads seldom rise sufficiently to taste well. And half-done policy implementation means that whether or not the reform-driven policy has succeeded seldom gets answered. Which policies work depends, first, on whether they were put into practice completely in schools and, second, whether they fit the place and the people.  Recent examples of half-baked implementation would be full funding of Head Start,  integrating computers into classroom lessons and the federal push for turning around failing schools.

Even when top-down strategies are fully in place across a district, classroom practice may be unaltered. When school boards adopted curriculum standards, created small high schools, and turned around schools—these fully implemented strategies often stumbled in getting teachers to translate these structural changes into changed classroom practice. To overcome this challenge, many districts created professional learning communities, expanded staff development, and hired coaches to help teachers overhaul school practices and reshape daily lessons. Still, the impact of these changes in altering routine ways of teaching continue to be unclear and unobserved.

No one yet has demonstrated how to improve achievement for the lowest quartile of students. When I say the “lowest quartile” I mean those students, often minority and poor, who year-after-year receive grades of “D” or “F” in their subjects and perform below proficiency levels on tests. Many of these students are neither troublesome nor delinquent but they are years behind in grade. They struggle with basic reading and math. They need early identification, even before they arrive in kindergarten, and far more instructional and personal intervention than offered by mainstream reform strategies. They need the benefits derived from close cooperation with other social and community institutions that bring essential city and state services to children.[iii]

Sustainability of school reforms remains out of reach of most districts. Without 7-10 years of steady attention to district improvement, early victories will slip away and that lowest quartile of students will remain forsaken. Broad Foundation awards went to urban districts that had superintendents who served at least five years. Continuity in reform also means providing stable funding; it means building leadership within the district to adapt reforms; it means unflagging political support from business and civic leaders, community groups, and state officials.

Given these persistent challenges to reformers for the past quarter-century, being realistic about urban school reform demands candor. The historical record is clear that in some districts and individuals schools, for a few years, centralized control and top-down strategies seemingly worked. The stars were aligned for a brief period but the, poof, they were gone. Civic and business leadership, political mobilization of resources and people, and educator expertise did come together to convert academic disasters into successes–as measured by test scores. Whether these strategies entered classrooms and revised teaching practices or intensified existing practices, however, remain largely unknown.

[i] See Larry Cuban, “Educational Entrepreneurs Redux,” in F. Hess (Ed.) Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006), pp. 223-242.

[ii] See the Broad Foundation website:

[iii] Ronald Ferguson, “Can Schools Narrow the Black-White Test Score Gap?” in C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.) The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Press, 1998), pp.  273-317.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

4 responses to “The Upside and Downside of Urban School Reform

  1. Jane Remer

    All I can say is, why do we keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results?

  2. Sixteen years of my career as an educator were spent at East St. Louis Senior High School, including the “Savage Inequalities” era. During that time there were many attempts to reform our school—almost everyone who encountered us knew how we could get better “if only we would…”. My principal, Mr. Samuel Morgan, taught us to meet the kids where they were and take them as far as we could. I was proud to work for him. In that bureaucratic and corrupt school district the classroom teacher had little control over the background knowledge or reading ability of the incoming tenth-graders. It did no good to wring our hands or say, “isn’t it awful.” For us, urban school reform meant to plan and teach a lesson such that students with poor reading or math skills learned material that would be of value to them as they grew to become what we hoped would be productive citizens. The students had many competent and dedicated teachers and many who were mediocre at best and criminal at worst. The principal had little say over who taught in his building.
    There is no denying the tragedy that so many students in that school failed to receive a worthwhile education. In the midst of it all, though, some kids did well and went on to do great things. East St. Louis alumni are everywhere and have made great contributions to their community and to our country. We just were unable to scale their success to school-wide levels.
    I believe that there is a great difference between top-down thinking about reform and the thinking of teachers dedicated to doing what is necessary to teach a lesson under difficult circumstances to learners whose worlds we can barely comprehend. I believe it would be of great value to reformers to consider the experiences and accumulated wisdom of competent and motivated teachers who spend thirty-five or more years reforming education (“do a better job of teaching students”) from the inside of classroom walls. Each gain is made one student at a time. Each graduate a victory.
    I’m not sure that standardized test scores are of more than passing interest to an urban schoolperson.
    In Illinois we have had DLOs, IGAP, ISAT, PSAE, NCLB, AYP, RtI, RTTT, SIS, and other assorted groups of initials that I have forgotten. Initials, each set signifying someone’s idea for reform, come and go. The bell rings, and teachers teach another lesson to students. Good teachers evaluate the results, make adjustments, and come back to do it again tomorrow. I read Dr. Cuban’s book—that formula hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, for better or for worse.
    I do believe that never in our public schools has so much attention been paid to the progress of each individual child. Good principals are demanding that their teachers pay attention to every student. We’ll have real reform when we don’t permit any child to fall behind or fail to thrive in our classrooms.

  3. Pingback: National ed blog highlights: June 15 | One Stop News Stand

  4. Pingback: The Upside and Downside of Urban School Reform | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice | Ed Ingman, Dean of Academics

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