“Education Will Break Your Heart” (Alex Russo)

This is the season of commencement speeches. Most are forgettable but a few go beyond the familiar homilies of this annual ritual. Alexander Russo wrote  about one that triggered many thoughts about my half-century involvement in school reform. Russo is a journalist who publishes “This Week in Education.” He also wrote about the turning around of Los Angeles’s Locke high school in “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors:Fighting for the Soul of  America’s Toughest High School.”

The best and most important commencement speech of the year was given by author Jonathan Franzen, not Conan O’Brian or Stephen Colbert. Franzen’s remarks at Kenyon College in Ohio were witty and smart like those of Conan and Colbert, but they were also much more intensely personal and human — and more powerful as a result. Even more importantly, they contained a message of great importance for educators and school reformers about how to tolerate such a daunting, heartbreaking endeavor.

In his speech, which the New York Times thought good enough to publish as an op-ed, Franzen delves into a key but usually unexamined issue around us: the psychological challenges of caring deeply about an issue that may or may not seem interesting or relevant or fixable to the rest of the world, and that may (probably) break our hearts. In Franzen’s case, the issue is the environment — trees and grass and clouds and all that. For many of us, the issue is education.

As Franzen tells the story, he was drawn to environmental issues from the start, but he quickly found that being an environmentalist was frustrating and uncool and seemed hopeless. So he spent many years trying to avoid thinking too much about it. He went off and did a lot of other things (“The Corrections,” “Freedom”) and generally tried to avoid getting overly involved in environmental issues. It was too much, and generally going so badly. But Franzen could only not care for so long, especially as he became more and more fascinated with the lives of wild birds. The birds became a point of entry for his return to environmentalism, an opportunity for him to move beyond his need to be cool (the world of “like”) and his fear that saving nature was a hopeless task.

People often ask me how they can stand working on education issues. “It’s so depressing,” they tell me. “Nothing ever seems to work.” Reading through Franzen’s remarks helped me understand a bit more about my own on-again, off-again fascination with public education, the cynical and silly ways I sometimes write about school reform, and — even more importantly — the struggle so many of my friends and loved ones (and the general public) have talking about education. The topic is so conflictual, so overwhelming, so depressing and (still) not particularly cool. Most of the time it devolves into a simplistic discussion of news headlines or individual experiences. As a result I generally don’t bring education up outside work hours. Or maybe I just need a break.

But it occurs to me — just a few moments left before my cynicism and self-preserving defensiveness prevent me from continuing along these lines — that admitting to the difficulties of loving education might be part of the solution, might make working on improving education more bearable in the long run. And maybe if we can find small but powerful points of access for ourselves and others — the local school, school lunches, a mentoring program — then we’ll have a lot more allies and a lot less shrugged shoulders.

The importance of small, focused programs that are accessible to a much broader range of people and whose progress can be measured with some chance of success isn’t a new thought for many of you, I’m sure, but sort of a new one for me and others of my ilk, who constantly wag our fingers at programs (TFA, DonorsChoose, Harlem Children’s Zone, Big Brothers & Sisters) whose scope is obviously too small and narrow to make a difference on the aggregate level.

Most of all, Franzen captures the challenges of caring deeply about something, about loving something outside yourself. Doing so will likely break your heart but is still somehow worth it.


Russo’s thoughts about Jonathan Franzen’s graduation talk and reforming schools got me thinking of what I tell students about the history of failed reforms, exaggerated policy talk, and repeated cycles of reform. How depressing, they say. How can I stand it? How can I keep working to improve schools for all children?

My thoughts  intersected with Russo’s but traveled in a very different direction when I wrote about them in an earlier post.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.

Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.

I learned that:

*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/

* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/

* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have


I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.

After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system t0 make organizational and instructional changes.

Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”

I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.

The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit tradeoffs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however,  are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.

The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered  the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.

So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?

Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that their time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.

What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.


Will working on school reform, as Russo said, “break your heart?” Perhaps. But I hope not. Broken-hearted reformers are a sad lot who too often turn their backs on revitalizing a core democratic institution.

My preference is for those who believe in the small projects that Russo suggests and stay in the work of school improvement even after experiencing defeats. I  have high regard for those who have learned much from the pitfalls of organizational change; they understand that school organizations have plans for reformers.  I honor those who respect the men and women who do the daily work of teaching and choose to work closely with them. I admire and recognize those who have the courage to keep pushing on after disappointment and heartbreaking failure. Persistence is what matters, not a broken heart.


Filed under Reforming schools

11 responses to ““Education Will Break Your Heart” (Alex Russo)

  1. As someone who just finished his second year teaching high school mathematics, I empathize with the recent graduates who feel passionate about improving public education in our country. At the same time, as this is my second career, after a quarter century in high tech, I resonate with your observations on the ebb and flow of educational reform, as well as the necessity for one to stay committed to their vision over the long haul as life is full of ups and downs.

    The following posts capture my thoughts along these veins as I completed my induction program. I believe they integrate the passion felt by new entrant to the field, the agony of those who recognize the enormity of a teacher’s role, and the recognition that balance is critical to a sustained career committed to improving public education for all.

    What have I learned about myself as a teacher?http://mathequality.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/what-have-i-learned-about-myself-as-a-teacher/

    What have I learned about my students?

    What will you focus on in the next year?

    Striving for a Sustainable Work-Life Balance

    • larrycuban

      Many thanks for letting readers get your reactions to becoming a teacher over the past few years. As someone who comes to teaching as a second career, I found your comments about being a new teacher and staying in the profession insightful.

  2. Jane Remer

    Dear Larry, As I gather my data and papers for the arts in education memoir I plan to write/publish as a third book that sums up the first two and all the other writing, teaching and mentoring I’ve been doing over more than 6 decades, your “break your heart” blog, I had the following thoughts pounce into my head.

    1. People still gasp when they realize I’m still committed to the value of the arts in all children’s education and lives and working hard to make it happen.

    2. I have experienced about all the small changes and larger disappointments you have in your particular part of the woods and these days am even less happy about my field as it gets lost and often drowned in the current races to the top and the wealthy men’s political society that couldn’t care less about a rounded education.

    3. I have spent many years of my life working at the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Arts in Education program (in the 70s) and worked with John Goodlad extensively during that time when he was focused on school change.

    4. The lessons I’ve learned are in all my books and articles, but here’s the most important one, and I learned it from Goodlad: School change when and if it happens does so very slowly; more often it sparks up and doodles down because there are so many obstacles against the energy, time, rewards needed to sustain the changes, no matter how tiny they may be.

    5. The really important lesson I still cherish is not to call it “school reform” but school change or school improvement (John, Edith Gaines, and others). Reform implies mismanagement; it is negative; it offers no hope at all even for the small steps forward and many steps back. Reform is impossible in our schools for all the reasons you and I know. But change, either forward or backward of there’s a rebound, or improvement, are encouraging words…..they at least give you a few moments of “success” to tuck away in your memory box, and continue on.

    I would be so pleased if you’d share my thoughts with the young woman would love to make a difference with a good heart but not yet enough tools and powerful language.

    My best to you, as always!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jane, for your comments. Your distinguishing between school change and school reform, what John Goodlad urged time and again, and your thoughts drawn from your experiences over decades are helpful to readers.

  3. Is change possible for the public school system? What if we put the reform issues aside and consider the question from a system point of view? (Understanding systems is a big part of the new National Science Standards). Has our educational system with its interconnections to state and federal political systems, its integration with our social beliefs, its current employment process and structure – including certification, evaluation, and licensure become too complex, and interdependent on other systems to change? The larger a system is the harder it is to effect change.

    The postal system might be a good example to consider. Times have changed, requirements have changed. Should the postal system continue Saturday delivery? How does the postal system interact with competing coexisting delivery companies like UPS and FedEx? Has your mailman delivered a Fedex or UPS package to you? What recent success stories have you heard – consider this one about the German postal system recently published in the NYTimes – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/world/europe/deutsche-post-reinvents-services-in-a-digital-world.html?_r=0 . The German postal system reinvented itself including the purchase of DHL? Will the success continue to work and will it last?

    Coming back to the original topic, is it really possible to effect change with the public education system or is their a disruptive crash and reinvention coming as sometimes happens with ecosystems?

    • larrycuban

      Of course, change is possible for the “system.” Public schools have changed in major and minor ways for centuries. From without and from within. But change toward what ends? Change engineered by whom? Change geared to help whom? These are questions that have been harder to ask much less answer. Thanks for the comment, Mary

  4. Pingback: The Endless Struggle | Wordsmatter

  5. Great post, Larry, and one that contains ideas that I totally concur with. Your 4 points are bang on especially the ideas about cyclical change and the continuity/change factor. As someone who taught secondary English for 36 years, I can testify to fact that teaching and schools have changed dramatically since I was a student in the 60’s and a young teacher today would not even recognize that world since they never experienced it themselves. But change has been slow; any attempts to radically overhaul things have failed spectacularly and reformers have had no idea how to implement these changes. After a flirtation with change, the system always reverts but keeps something of the new. Thus, you have after many years, a system that looks different and approaches things differently. As I have said in previous comments, the things that ultimately succeed are those that are pragmatic rather than ideological.
    You also made the point about how much reform is driven by the need to create a more equitable environment for certain students. Today’s middle class student could probably go through the same rigid, information-based system that I experienced and still succeed. The majority of our lowest achieving students come from poorer backgrounds, so why doesn’t government look outside the school system for solutions? Education is an equalizer in North America but it can’t fix everything.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cathy, for comparing your experiences in Ontario with system changes and what I described as lessons from reform.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s