Reforms That Stick: How Schools Change

There is a strongly-held myth many academics, policymakers, and reformers repeat weekly: schools hardly ever change. Those who believe in this myth often cite the large literature demonstrating failed innova­tions in schools or point at calcified bureaucracies and stubborn teachers and principals who block reform after reform (see here and here). Like all myths, this one has a factual basis. There have been many failures to transform schooling in the U.S.  From open-space schools to vouchers, there have indeed been vain attempts to alter the course of schooling.

Such a myth is useful for those who beat the drums that U.S. schools are broken. After all, they seek changes that meet their view of what constitutes a “good” education. “Troubled” schools is the basis for the profound pessimism that presently exists over the capacity of public schools to improve. So it is a politically useful myth, but it is inherently mistaken nonetheless.

The fact is that over the last century there have been many organizational, governance, curricular, and even instructional changes in public schools. Such changes have been adopted, adapted, implemented, and institutionalized. In most instances, these changes departed from what reformers in past generations wanted but they were changes nonetheless. Many of these changes have been incremental, that is, additions to existing structures and processes of schooling. However, a few of these changes have been fundamental, altering substantially public schools. Consider the following changes in U.S. schools over the past half-century:

  • Creation of small high schools;
  • Increased qualifications for teachers and administrators;
  • Decreased teacher/student classroom ratios;
  • Increased choices of schools, curricula, and programs available to parents;
  • New subjects in curriculum (environmental studies, advanced placement courses biology, calculus, history, etc.);
  • Use of small-group and individual approaches to classroom organization and instruction;
  • Public school desegregation of black children since 1954;
  • Increased access of children with disabilities to public school classrooms since the early 1970s.

Why has such a myth about the incapacity of schools to change become mainstream wisdom?

The basis for this myth about public schools seldom changing is due, in part, to reform-driven observers and participants failing to get what they wanted, ignoring past reforms,  overlooking how schools absorb innovations and transform them into stable routines, and failing to distinguish between the core of schooling and the periphery.  Amnesia, myopia, and sour grapes are congenital defects afflicting reformers. I will argue that there are clear lessons that can be both learned and applied by reform-minded policymakers, researchers and practitioners in understanding how changes get converted into institutional routines. And how some changes are at the center of the existing U.S. system of schooling and some migrate to the periphery but still exist.

How Fundamental Changes Become Incorporated as Incremental Ones

The kindergarten, junior high school, open-space architecture, and the use of computers, for example, are instances of actual and attempted fundamental changes in the school and classroom since the turn of the century that were widely adopted, incorporated into many schools, and then, over time, were marginalized into incremental changes.

How did this occur?

A familiar example is the curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s, guided, in large part, by reform-inspired academic specialists and funded by the federal government. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools, as evidenced by Sputnik), millions of dollars went to producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students to understand how scientists thought and experienced the pleasures of discovery, how mathematicians solved math problems and how historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here, here, and here). Reformers were sorely disappointed at the small returns from major efforts.

Another way that fundamental changes get transformed into incremental ones is organizationally shunting them from the core of schooling to the periphery of the  system. For example, innovative programs that reduce class size (e.g., dropout prevention), integrate subject matter from diverse disciplines (e.g., gifted and talented programs), and structure activities that involve students in their learning (e.g., vocational programs) often begin as classroom experiments, but, over time, migrate to the periphery of the system. The schools have indeed adopted and implemented programs fundamentally different from what mainstream students receive. Yet it is the outsiders—students labeled as potential dropouts, vocational students, pregnant teenagers,those identified as gifted, at-risk, and disabled—who participate in the innovative programs initially. Thus, some basic changes get encapsulated, like a grain of sand in an oyster; they exist within the system but are often separated from core programs (see here and here).

Such conversions of fundamental changes into incremental ones occur as a result of deep-seated impulses within the organization to appear modern and to convince those who politically and financially support the schools that what happens in schools is up-to-date, responsive to the wishes of its patrons, but yet no different from what used to happen in the “real schools” that taxpayers remember from their youth—schools containing homework rows of desks in classrooms, and teachers who maintain order. Thus, pervasive and potent processes within the institution of schooling preserve its independence to act even in the face of powerful outside political forces intent upon altering what happens in schools and classrooms (see here, here, and here). Reformers seeking to “transform” schooling see such adaptations as failure; less self-interested observers see this as how organizations adapt politically to their environment.

So, to sum up what I have asserted thus far:

  1. Schools have changed a great deal.
  2. These changes have been in virtually all areas of governance, organization, curriculum, and classroom instruction.
  1. Most of these changes have been incremental; only a few have been fundamental.
  1. Many of these changes were adopted, implemented, and then became institutionalized. Some fundamental changes were incorporated into the core of the mainstream school system as incremental innovations, but many others became permanently lodged at the periphery of the system.
  1. Over time, many changes in schools preserve the overall stability of schooling.

With all of these changes that I have detailed, why is there this myth that schools are so resistant to change?

The answer, I believe, is located in cultural attitudes that Americans have toward the idea of change. Most Americans see change as a good thing. Annual changes in car styles and clothes are matched to a political system of annual, biennial, and quadrennial elections and a passion for moving from one place to another cherish the new and different. These attitudes are strong, abiding, and fed continually by a consumer culture that stresses new products, rotating name brands, and the search for different experiences.

Because the dominant belief is that change is good, planned change is viewed as even better. Anchored in evolutionary ideas that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and wedded to historic values of the American culture, the idea of progress has been honed to sharpness by generations of theorists, policymakers, and publicists. Planned change in schools (i.e., reforms) spill over public schools again and again because schooling is seen as a public good that also benefits individuals climbing the ladder to success. High expectations for what diplomas and degrees can do to one’s life chances drive Americans.  But U.S. schools are vulnerable to socioeconomic pressures coming from outside schools. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions. When changes occur and differ from what that generation of reformers sought, the label of failure gets glued to public schools.

With the rhetoric of failed U.S. schools driving the past 30 years of reform–recall A Nation at Risk–high expectations for schooling to bolster the economy over the past 30 years, reforms have flowed over U.S. schools. Many have stuck as incremental changes. Other changes have morphed into programs lodged at the periphery of schooling. Schools have indeed changed. Only disappointed, myopic and amnesiac reformers hang onto the myth of unchanging schools.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

15 responses to “Reforms That Stick: How Schools Change

  1. Art Pease

    “Most of these changes have been incremental” -this is the key! Give folks time to understand, time to experience, time to ‘work out the kinks’. Don’t try to bulldoze everything, because the change will not last after the bulldozer moves on to some other construction site!

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Commercial viability also determined the fate of some top down or intended large scale initiatives, these usually supported with federal funds. I am thinking of textbooks and resources for teachers developed in “hot house” shops with limited or no field trials. Bruner’s Man: A Course of Study is one example. Others, inspired by his little book The Process of Education, were launched in the late 1960s and early 1970’s.
    Most of these ventures were based on the assumption that scholars working at “the frontiers of a discipline” had the knowledge and know how to be effective and authoritative contributors to curriculum development. That assumption was not always warranted, but discipline-specific instruction became the norm along with “academic” achievement as a major aim and end in view.
    Discipline-centered education has become so dominant that project-based learning and interdisciplinary thematic units and so on are all novelties again. The late Harry Broudy, philosopher of education, used to say that if you were discomforted by a direction in education, wait about twenty years for the next one to surface.

    • larrycuban

      Jerome Bruner’s MACOS is a worthy example from the curriculum reform surge in the 1960s. And, as you say Laura, commercial interests come into play when changes are proposed and adopted. Thanks for the comment.

  3. David Patterson

    Maybe the question is wrong. Maybe it should be “Are today’s schools capable of eliminating the achievement gap?” For me, it is not the “reform” that is critical, it is the success of students. “Reforms” are a means to an end. In the three decades I have been in K-12 education I find little evidence that the system is able to well serve too many of its students, and that the percentage of the students that they system struggles to serve well has increased dramatically here in California and throughout the United States. I point to the achievement gap of African American males as one example. On the other hand, there are examples of traditional and charter public schools that are successful – yet as a system of public education these schools are very much the exceptions and not the rule.

    David Patterson

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, David. Yet there are reformers who say that because schools are incapable of making major and worthy changes, forget about the achievement gap. My point is that whatever and whoever defines the problem the issue of public schools’ capability of changing arises. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Many are beyond the half century mark, Larry and a few like small high schools were actually once commoner. A teachers student load. It has gone up and down. In NYC now it’s worse than when I came to NYC in 1966.

    But your point holds up in many ways — many times more students graduate from h.s. For example!

    Deb Sent from my iPhone


  5. Good article. While some reforms are good, may I add that not all of the changes imposed on education have been positive? Here are four examples:

    1. Open-space classrooms are utterly horrible – ask any student or teacher who has to deal with it, and you will hear many reasons why

    2. In math, requiring every single course to begin with set theory was pretty much a waste of time

    3.Vouchers are a way of increasing segregation and turning a public good – education – into a private commodity and helping to destroy the public sphere and turn it all into a commercial market place. Plus, the experimental evidence is that even on its own terms (ie test scores) it doesn’t work.

    4. Making all of education in K-12 public schools all about scoring well on inane multiple-choice tests has been a disaster. No parent, teacher, or student that I know of has anything good to say about this initiative.

    • larrycuban

      Just want to clarify. Positive or negative in judging changes, as you do, means that your values of what constitutes a “good” education differ from those making the reforms you refer to. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  6. David Gamson

    Thanks for the great piece, Larry. I’ll be sharing with my classes… classes that are still inspired by you and David Tyack…

  7. Pingback: Reforma educativa - Instituto Alfa e Beto

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