Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

Every reform movement leaves a residue in public schools. Consider the “best” elementary school in any U.S. city during the 1890s before the Progressive education reforms cascaded over public schools in the early 20th century.*

The “best” elementary school (often called “grammar” school) of the 1890s, situated in a middle-class part of the city, had at least eight large classrooms–one for each grade–where teachers taught all the subjects to groups of 40-50 children sitting in rows of bolted down desks.








The teacher’s task was to cover the entire prescribed curriculum during the school year, have students recite–often standing up–portions of the textbook, and repeat what has been learned on periodic tests. At the end of the semester, teachers would decide which students would get promoted and which ones would be held back. In immigrant neighborhoods of the same city, elementary school buildings, curriculum and pedagogy were the same but what differed was that not all immigrant children  attended school and those that did often dropped out by the end of the third grade and worked in sweatshops, peddled newspapers, picked up off jobs on the street, or worked in industrial jobs that needed quick and small hands and feet.






















Much of that “best” 1890 elementary school changed with the slow penetration of progressive education reforms over the next forty years. The reform movement looked to the “whole child” beyond absorbing what the teacher said and what was contained within textbooks. The physical, social, psychological, emotional, and general well being of the student was at the heart of the progressive ideology of reform in these decades. By 1940, the “best” elementary school building now had more than a dozen classrooms, a lunchroom, auditorium, outside playground, suites of rooms for a visiting doctor to examine students and a separate room for an on-site nurse, a social worker, and, if space permitted, a psychologist who would administer individual intelligence tests. The curriculum still contained reading, math, and science and a new subject called “social studies,” but the content itself and new textbooks were geared to real-world examples rather than traditional content taught in the late-19th century.

Trinity Lutheran School 03-14-2010








In progressive classrooms, movable chairs and desks replaced the rows of bolted down ones. Kindergartens where five year olds would work and play in large airy, furnished rooms with a reading area, sand box, artist corner, and blocks became part of the age- graded school. While textbooks still reigned supreme in the upper grades, additional books and materials appeared in classrooms. Many elementary school teachers began dividing up their entire class–still in the 30+ student range–into reading groups where a teacher would assign tasks to the rest of the class while she–by now teachers were mostly single women–would work with handful of students on a reading or math lesson. Instead of straight recitation from the text, often in unison, the “best” teachers in this “best” elementary school would guide a whole-group discussion of a topic calling on individual students who raised their hands to respond to teacher questions but no longer had to stand and recite memorized passages.








Since the early 1950s, when progressive schools came under political attack and a new wave of reforms swept across U.S. schools, deposits of these earlier reforms remained in elementary schools even after  the word “progressive” became a naughty word in the lexicon of school reformers. An informed observer walking into a “best” elementary school in 2014 would see vestiges of a much earlier progressive movement to improve schools.

Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century after thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform. Vestiges of these decades of reform, like earlier progressive reforms, I am guessing, will be quietly incorporated into public schooling. Charter schools will survive, standardized testing will persist but be scaled back, a downsized version of a national curriculum standards will be in evidence, routine use of technologies will show up in classrooms, reduced  accountability regulations will be around but penalties will be fewer. While a high regard for student outcomes will persist, other outcomes of learning in the arts, humanities, and emotional growth will emerge.

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Also the idée fixe of schools concentrating on producing human capital first and civic engagement second or third will persist but lose its potency slowly as popular pushback against too much standardized testing and a national curriculum grow in momentum.

I have seen many waves of school reform in my adult life as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. As a researcher, I have studied both 19th and 20th century school reform movements. In each movement then, bits and pieces of prior school reforms stuck. For contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms and are alive, say 20 years from now, I would guess, will not break out the champagne for these remnants.



*Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage Press, 1961); David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue (New York: Basic Books, 1982)); Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York Simon & Schuster, 2000).




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20 responses to “Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

  1. JoeN

    You identify possibly the least understood but most pressing issue in your previous post Larry, when you commented, “…donor-pushed reforms concentrated only on the school rather than outside economic and social structures that freeze institutional inequalities in place.”

    Certainly in the UK, every leading, influential educational organisation I can think of has been instrumental in completely misaligning the profession, so that it’s become commonplace to regard teachers as, primarily, agents of social change. Children don’t need social missionaries half as much as they need good teachers.

  2. Larry: thanks for this needed perspective. I think it would be equally useful, though, to discuss those elements that never survive an era as well as those elements that seem utterly impervious to change. The secondary teacher penchant to cover the content irrespective of engagement and understanding seems to me, after all these years of work, amazingly impervious to change. I have been in numerous classes in HS that seem not a wit different than my own experience 50 years ago. On the other hand, the open classroom properly died in the face of the horrible acoustics and logistics of making it all work.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Grant. David Tyack and I discussed those reforms like “open classrooms” that appeared and disappeared (mostly) and called them “falling stars.” We also went on at length about those deep patterns in instruction and curriculum that you call “impervious” to change as part of what we said was the “grammar of instruction.” Both are in Tinkering toward Utopia and, given your comment, probably worth returning to in a few posts.

    • JMK

      “The secondary teacher penchant to cover the content irrespective of engagement and understanding seems to me, after all these years of work, amazingly impervious to change. ”

      1) Secondary teachers owe an allegiance to the subject. Teachers with a huge range of abilities in their classroom often feel compelled to move forward because the bulk of their students do understand and are engaged with the content. Teaching low ability students with little engagement is a tremendously difficult task (as you both know). If you slow things down for unmotivated kids, the mid-range kids might miss out on content that will improve their test scores, which is better for the school. I’ve often run into teachers who would like to focus on engagement and understanding but don’t want to risk the outcome. I know at least one teacher who did take his time, working to achieve understanding and increase engagement with a difficult concept (negative numbers). Not only was the increase in understanding minimal, but the kids soon forgot everything they learned (more on that in a minute).

      2) Many, MANY secondary teachers feel that they should fail any student who doesn’t meet their high standards, that only students willing to work hard and understand *all* the content. I disagree with these teachers, but their teaching is hardwired to their values and philosophy–which is why it won’t be easily changed. And they aren’t alone–education reform is built on the premise that these teachers are correct.

      3) We do teach them. We do engage them. We make sure they understand. And then they forget it all.

      We don’t have proof that any method works. I teach the way I do because ultimately, I believe that engaged students who gain a sense of confidence are better off than unengaged students who consequently see no value in school–even if there’s no difference in engaged vs. unengaged test scores in six months. But I can’t prove it.

      So I don’t see anything amazing about the impervious nature of this approach.

  3. MG

    Larry, another wonderful, provocative blog.

    I agree with much. Would like to push you on one contention.

    You write: contemporary philanthropists will not break out the champagne for these remnants….

    I’d divide the donors into 2 camps. The no excuses/quality charter backers, like Walton Family and Fisher Family (KIPP)…I’d think per your own analysis, they’ll be at least partially pleased, and possibly champagne drinkers on quality, though perhaps chastened by scale. Are there a few NOLAs and DCs, or several across the USA?

    Those donors trying to fix whole urban districts – Gates and Broad and perhaps Zuckerberg – you are right. They would likely drink no champagne. The districts seem unchangeable, much like Pittsburgh steel mills in 1970s.

    An unanswered question is how do the philanthropists move forward. Do they simply stop giving to k-12? Or do they move towards school choice?

    • larrycuban

      Mike, thanks for your comment on donors. I agree with the distinction you make between the two camps but still believe that, overall, both camps will be disappointed given their major investments. Perhaps the Walton Foundation less so since they have worked at the community level far more than other foundations. As to what donors should do, in the chapter from which this post is taken, I point out the major flaw in donor grant-making is neglecting the policy-to-practice portions of their grants in seldom involving teachers at every stage of the process in giving funds to schools, districts, and states for classroom changes. This, I claim, has been the historic blind spot on the part of donors. That is, the evidence that implementation of substantial grants in schools and classrooms is meager yet funds continue to flow. The policy direction, I argue, is more direct involvement of teachers at each step of the way in conceptualizing, shaping, adopting, and implementing donor grants. I am not holding my breath for this to occur.

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