Reimagining the U.S. High School (Part 2)

“The XQ Institute is in service of parents and pioneers, entrepreneurs and teachers, business leaders and administrators, youth and education experts—who are joining a movement to rethink America’s schools. Together, we can use our knowledge, rigor, and creativity to create a new model for school itself.”

“What if we could scrap the blueprint, change the model and truly innovate? What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

“The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”


From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school. No proposals for tinkering accepted here. Change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.


None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

These are lessons from the past that the Super School Project should keep in mind as their staff and consultants consider the high school of the future.


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4 responses to “Reimagining the U.S. High School (Part 2)

  1. Jeffrey Bowen

    A useful variation on the incremental versus fundamental theme is to differentiate between first and second order changes, as I am sure you know. They can be addressed simultaneously, and probably those second order changes have more durability, although so much of ANY change seems uphill or quixotic when human relationships are at play. To parallel your analogy, whether you fix up the old car or buy a brand new one pivotally involves your relationships with the local garage mechanic, the new car dealership salesman, etc.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Jeffrey. I started out in the late ’80s using first- and second order changes and later shifted to incremental/fundamental. I agree with your point about things sticking depends so much on relationships.

  2. This is yet another example of the importance of studying history. The problem is not that we are lacking wonderful school models. It is that we keep trying to simplify something that is by its nature extremely complex. Learning is different for each individual, and good teaching is based on relationships with each individual learner. This is something that cannot be reduced to a formula. (At least, it would have to be a very complex formula!) I am not an expert like you, but I would guess that one reason sweeping changes don’t stick is that nothing works for everyone, and enforcing the use of things that don’t work is very difficult. Just an observation.

    • larrycuban

      Erika, as you say, there are many reasons that fundamental changes seldom stick and one is, as you say also, underestimating the complexity of schooling, teaching, and learning. Thanks for your comment.

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