“Transforming” Public Schools: Enough already with an Overhyped Word!

We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students.  U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010


Transform the way teachers teach and how children learn by replacing group-based, teacher-centered instruction with personalized, learner-centered instruction….

Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes….

Transform the way in which educators’ create change by replacing piecemeal change strategies with whole-system change strategies.... Francis Duffy, 2010


Computers, the Internet, online courses, smart phones, cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other digital tools play an important role in improving and, yes, transforming schools.  The role of technology in schools will increase, and as we use these new tools wisely, they help make schools more effective and engaging.    Andrew Zucker, 2012


Harness Technology to transform your School: With technology, anything is possible and today’s students experience and use technology every hour of every day. Shouldn’t your classrooms have the technology products and solutions to help your students move forward?    Advertisement for conference on technology held by HB Communications, 2016



If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get 12, 100,000 hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 111,000,000 hits (as of May 17, 2016). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of overhyped words in reformers’ vocabulary. Another highly touted word that has become puffery is “disrupt” as in “disrupting schools through technological innovations” (which got a measly 1,430,000 Google “results” on May 19, 2016). But for today, one overrated word is enough.  I will concentrate on “transform”

The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.




But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes.  But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:







This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; a century later, about 75 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).

Think about the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation has reappeared (see here and here).

Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what he or she means.

1. What does “transform” mean to you?

Sometimes I use above images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person .

2. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?

Is the problem academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?

3. What exactly is to be transformed?  school structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?

Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”

4. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?

This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s value about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.”  Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.

5.  How fast should the “transformation” be?

Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.

6. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?

Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the better school.

So, if viewers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean. And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.




Filed under school reform policies, Uncategorized

17 responses to ““Transforming” Public Schools: Enough already with an Overhyped Word!

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    I appreciate this exercise.
    I cringe at the easy acceptance of the phrase “impacting student growth” as if that should have a positive trope in meaning.
    Then there is the matter of faith in the idea of better is a scale-up or replication…shall I add the promiscuous and vacuous use of “best practice?”

  2. Curt Jones

    Easy, just want the kids not coming home bored. The admins to realize that no, they are not doing all they can to have amazing, engaging schools. To have schools where the teachers aren’t afraid to express opinions about the social-emotional-heavy/academic-lite philosophy admins implement. Kids do want to learn and be challenged instead of given worksheets (or ‘shut up sheets’ as some educators call them. Love to go to the grocery store and not hear 10 other random parents say the same thing. To have the superintendent not dismiss parents who say their kids are bored as a noisy, insignificant few, but then wring his hands over the number of families leaving for charter schools. Transformation – sign me up!

  3. David

    And sadly, we go down the rabbit hole, only to discover too late that we are falling and shouldn’t have jumped in the first place. Let us sit and wonder at how the iPad has joined the open classroom as yet another failed “fad” on which schools spent too much money: http://qz.com/691180/even-apple-is-acknowledging-that-the-ipads-in-education-fad-is-coming-to-an-end/

  4. Steven Rogg

    My guess is that we use “transformitive” because “transmogrification” is just a bit too challenging (see: http://www.lovine.com/hobbes/comics/transmogrifier.html), “transfiguration” is preempted, and vocabulary such as “disruptive” and “dyschronogenic” *feel* somewhat destructive (and we only want constructive changes, right?). It seems “reform” has lost meaning as well, although I remain stubbornly fond of the modifier “systemic”. (How I miss those days!) So, what do you propose as an alternative? What’s a well-meaning eduneer to do?

    By the way, I love your six questions.


    • larrycuban

      Love the Calvin and Hobbes comic, Steve. Thanks for sending it along. What all of this hype (and wordplay) is about are two words: change and improvement. The former does not mean the latter but the latter means that something has had to alter. Moreover, the former can be incremental/fundamental. Advocates of either kind of change assume that improvements will occur. Justifying the improvement is what my six questions try to get at. My preference would be to call the next “new” thing an improvement but I fear that suggestion, in this hyper-climate of “transformation,” “disruptive” innovations and the like, would be shouted down.

      • Steven Rogg

        You have my full agreement about “improvement”, and that the weaknesses of “change” rhetoric. At the risk of seeming mechanistic (I actually favor an educational ecosystems perspective), I believe there also needs to be a nod to optimal conditions as well. Improvement has the right direction, but says nothing about pace (your question #5) or scope (question #4). We might conclude that no single term can quite express the vision. I’d love to read your answers to your own six questions!

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Steven.

  5. surfer

    Oh God, I remember the open classroom of the early 70s. The most liberal and on board teachers immediately saw how it didn’t work because of (DUH!) noise and started trying to make walls by moving coat closets, file cabinets or other partitions between the damned rooms. Experienced that in school and yes…it was noisy. Then I went to an “old school” that had heavy cinderblock walls, tall ceilings and windows. It rocked!

    The whole point is the idiots coming up with these reforms don’t even know what has been tried before and failed. They never look to old practices that might work. And the lack dirt in their hands experience.

    Oh well, it is just my tax dollars. Oh…and misuse of the kids time. But any who really want to, can compensate for that on their own with books and the Internet so available. It doesn’t actively hurt me if society has these issues.

  6. ribeirja

    Salient points here. I posit that the “overhype” around transformation also extends to how we train, mentor and develop education leaders. What happens to a system (small, medium or large-scale in size) when a transformational leader happens to leave a school? What are the implications for stakeholders, program and resources?

    As it concerns systems, transformation is even more “overhyped” – especially in the area of ICT implementation. Stages of ICT integration models show us that our highly bureaucratized and structural-functional public systems are more often than not in the stage of “embedding” or “applying” and very few ever reach the stage of “infusing” or “transforming.” Our expectations (formed through discourse and earlier scholarship) that a technology implementation is supposed to “transform” an entire system and environment is part of the reason why educational technology has failed to meaningfully shape the way we lead and learn in the 21st century. New ways of exploring “system change” in education need to be explored further with more pointed language.

    Jason Ribeiro, PhD Candidate
    University of Calgary

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jason, for taking the time to comment on “transforming” when it comes to systems, particularly educational ones.

  7. Gisèle Huff

    You need to read the vision document created by 28 strange bedfellows that describes what learning should be like in the 21st century (www.education-reimagined.org). The world has changed drastically since the last century but our schools have not. We have to reboot learning so that we prepare our children for the immense challenges they face and the entirely different context in which they face them.

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate your taking the time to comment, Gisele. I will look at education reimagine link you sent. Thank you.

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