The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

Were the “Open Space” schools of the 1960s and 1970s a reform failure?.

Instead of self-contained, four-walled classrooms of about 900 square feet holding one teacher and 25 students that opened up into long hallways, school boards hired architects to design schools without walls with large open spaces—sometimes called pods– where teams of teachers would teach multi-age children, collaborate with one another nearby and come up with innovative lessons that would engage students and sustain academic achievement. The newly designed physical structure would alter traditional age-graded schools in organizing students (e.g., multi-age groups rather than separating children and youth by age) how teachers worked together (e.g., team teaching rather than teachers assigned to separate classrooms) and how they taught the required curriculum by tailoring instruction and learning to the differences among students in abilities and their needs (e.g., small groups, individual work, and crossing subject boundaries with thematic units rather than whole-group instruction, textbooks, homework, and tests). Student-centered teaching, not the familiar teacher-centered lesson–would become the norm, open space reformers assumed.[i]

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Open space architecture and enthusiasm for innovative grouping of children, teaching, and learning customized to individual students spread rapidly across the U.S. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example,

The District of Columbia schools spent $163 million in the 1970s to build 17 open space schools. In the same decade, Arlington County (VA) spent $25 million to convert 13 traditional schools into open space facilities. Montgomery County (MD) spent $32 million to build t 21 open space schools and Fairfax County (VA) spent $48 million on 13 buildings that combined both open and closed space. [ii]


Yet within a decade, these open space schools had put up partitions, built walls and went back to self-contained classrooms where again traditional lessons reigned. By the end of the 1980s, open space schools were a prime example of a seemingly “failed” reform. [iii]

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Open space architecture in brand new building and refurbished older buildings has reappeared. Fueled by the ubiquity of computer devices and rhetoric about new technologies in practice such as “blended learning” and “personalized instruction” new schools have been erected that have flexible space—common areas for clusters of classrooms, small conference rooms, and space for individual students to read alone, work on devices to see exercises and do exercises and write. Multiple-sized spaces have returned in many buildings for both students and teachers to use new technologies in daily lessons. These new spaces again promised that teachers would shift from traditional lessons to student-centered ways of teaching that differentiated instruction and involved children and youth in daily activities. [iv]


Does this historical recounting of the once innovative open space architecture in schools in the late-1960s mean that it was a “success” for a brief moment in time—a shooting star—but eventually “failed” because walls and self-contained classrooms returned by the 1980s? Or have open space schools “succeeded” in that they returned and have been adapted to the technological context of the 21st century?

This example of a once highly touted school reform disappearing and returning–and I can name many others including “new” technologies–raise serious questions about the time scale policymakers, researchers, and practitioners use to judge reform “success” and “failure.”

Subsequent posts take up how the concept of time itself prompts premature judgments of “failure.”


[i] Open space schools refers to the interior architecture of the school where large , medium, and small spaces can be used to accommodate large-group, small-group, and independent work by students and teachers. Often confused with open space schools are “open education” and “open classrooms.” Although these pedagogical reforms are linked, they are independent of one another.

Open education surged in popularity in the late-1960s as a British import of progressive way of teaching primary and upper-grade children through small-group and independent work, much student decision-making in choosing the “learning centers” they would move through during the school day in traditional age-graded classrooms. The role of the teacher was closer to a coach and guide rather than engaging in teacher-directed lessons, using textbooks, administering quizzes and exams, and assigning nightly homework. Many advocates of “open education” also promoted open space schools to get rid of the age-graded school thus linking the two reforms. See Larry Cuban, “The Open Classroom,” Education Next, 2(4), 2004, pp. 69-71.

[ii] Judith Valente, “Open Space Classes: Results Doubtful?,” Washington Post, December 11, 1979 at:

Howard Libit, “ ‘Innovation’ Still Besets Some Schools: 1960s Trend to Open Space Failed Quickly,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995 at:

[iii] I served as superintendent in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools between 1974-1981. I visited schools and classrooms a few days each week and by the end of my first year, I noticed that in at least a half-dozen open space elementary schools built in the late-1960s and early 1970s, partitions made of book cases, newly installed accordion separators, and plastered walls had been erected to re-create separate classrooms for K-6 teachers.

[iv]Michael Horn, “Tear Down This Wall! A New Architecture for Blended Learning Success,” EdSurge, June 29, 2015 at:


Filed under school reform policies

19 responses to “The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

  1. Now I understand why my elementary school was huge rooms divided by bookcases and blackboards. Interesting! It seems that trends in education are cyclic.

  2. David F

    Hi Larry—thanks for this series…I’m looking forward to reading it. The thing that jumps out at me already is the costs involved premised on the reforms (and thus, pedagogical practices), and how that money could have been spent if the reforms were not undertaken. The DC area example you give is $268 million–a shocking number (is this in 1970s dollars or 2017 dollars?). But then, we just saw the LAUSD spend $1 billion + on a failed iPad rollout.

    That the basic construct of “teacher-students-classroom-supplemental materials” could generate such massive costs based on how that construct is defined points to the importance of the “pedagogy wars” and who actually understands the underlying research and assumptions. I would suggest most administrators, school boards and even teachers do not.

  3. Dr. Bob

    Open space classrooms and classroom technology share at least one important principle, both must be student-centered to show results. Generally, technology that doesn’t show results in achievement is due to a teacher’s approach to teaching and learning. Open spaced classrooms failed because they were based on one conception of teaching to be successful. What happened as is happening with technology, we failed to provide the adequate training for teachers. Teachers remained in their teacher centric mode because of its perception of control. This was especially the case when we began to emphasize testing.

  4. Laura H. Chapman

    There is much more that bears on school architecture that the apparent attention to open, flexible spaces versus enclosed and relatively fixed spaces. For anyone interested in the many factors that bear on form, function, and style see this website.

  5. The open space teaching environment concept made some assumptions that just do not work except with some special populations. It assumed students want to learn and therefore would focus on the task and not be distracted by events outside that focus. It assumed all students would have well managed behavior. It assumed students would have respect for teachers and other students. It assumed all teachers would be able to manage their students and their teaching environment. I think that was four to many assumptions. There are student and teacher populations where those assumptions apply. There are many more (most public schools) where they do not. Maybe pessimistic but from experience realistic.

    • larrycuban

      Garth, thanks for the comment.

    • Chester Draws

      It’s not just students. Anyone who has worked in an open plan office will know that it increases distraction, even when a highly motivated adult. Almost everyone prefers working in separate offices as a result (the real reason for open plan is it is cheaper). How are students meant to be better than adults?

  6. I think its also not only making decisions about “What and How to build” …. but making sure the question of “Why” we build in this way is important –

  7. From 1971-75, my faculty team prepared Team Teachers in our Open Area Teacher Preparation Program (18 units of coursework coordinated with extended team teaching practicum). We taught each Team to provide both didactic instruction and experiential learning opportunities, resulting in superior results on the Canadian Test of Basic Skills compared to students in conventional classrooms. I developed a 20-minute assessment that identified with 98% predictive accuracy who to intake for Team Teacher Preparation (not everyone can team teach). Also, developed a model (T-Ts-TS-tS-S) for flexibly grouping multi-grade students for didactic instruction and experiential learning. (Dr. William A. Gray 250-655-0313 on west coast)

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