Why Do Some School Reforms Last?

School reformers seek to fix problems. Many of these “solutions” appear and disappear again and again–as the previous post argued. Yet some past reforms do stick.  How come?

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will run well; it has been dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump-incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation-fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) and Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom film and radio, and the project method, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom at the turn of the century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either transformed into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either become incremental or disappear?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (Kirst and Meister 1985; Tyack et al. 1980).

They enhance,not disturb,the existing structures. Many of the progressive reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities,for vocational classes, and counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for the job market expanded the numbers of adults in schools to help children. Similarly, additional space for social services enhanced the school program. More staff and social services amended and elaborated current structures; they did not permanently alter them.

They are easy to monitor. Many of the progressive reforms were visible. They could be counted and seen. The service was either available or it was not, for example, hot lunches, summer schools, health clinics, playgrounds, and courses in home economics and drafting. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. -New staff positions such as counselors and vocational education teachers created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for their share of the school budget. Other groups outside the school became deeply entangled in the reform and sought its continuation. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for driver’s education, car dealers and insurance companies; for physical education, sports equipment vendors) supported the new services. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators and commercial groups to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some progressive reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories. Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that have longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time.

Studies of nonschool organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Michels, Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Michels’s (1949) study of Germany’s Social Democratic party, Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document organizational adaptability in places founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of the Progressives’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Joseph Morrissey, Harold Goldman, and Lorraine Klerman (1980) examined a century and a half of the Worcester State Hospital (Massachusetts) and described shifts in goals and treatment of mentally ill patients. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Institutional and political reasons (e.g., fits existing structures, easy to monitor, and constituency approval)  explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.



Filed under school reform policies

9 responses to “Why Do Some School Reforms Last?

  1. jeffrey bowen

    Your analysis prompts reflection and good discussion, as did the earlier part. I find it challenging to separate out the components of special education. Together they seem to represent monumental reform in education, reaching far beyond either parental influence or “more adults” in the school setting per se. I would enjoy a more in depth application of your analysis to selected aspects of special education, taking into account its financial and mandated dominance in today’s public schools.

    • larrycuban

      The federal special ed legislation in 1975 (PL 94-142) was a fundamental change in U.S. schooling that has lasted. I was superintendent in Arlington at the time and saw up close how parent participation and federal law had changed district ways of meeting the needs of children with disabilities. The due process procedures accompanying the law and it IDEA update have also lasted and basically changed how public schools educate and treat children and youth with disabilities. Thanks for the comment, Jeff.

  2. Pingback: Veranderingen binnen de bestaande school of juist niet? – KomenskyPost

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