Tinkering Toward Whose Utopia?

It is coming up to a quarter-century since Tinkering was published. Still in print, the short book that David Tyack* and I wrote has been praised and panned. Over the years, David and I have spoken and written about the ideas we expressed in the book about history of U.S. school reform and subsequent shifts that we have seen in reform-minded policies pushed by federal and state authorities. And, of course, the hyperbole that accompanied each reform’s rhetoric, action, and implementation.

We have been asked many questions over the years about the logic of the central argument we made and evidence we had to support it. We have been asked about why schooling (both private and public) seem so familiar to each generation of parents even with new buildings, furnishings, and technologies.

Recently, however, I was asked one question that I don’t remember ever being asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward?

That question got me thinking anew about the ever-shifting aims of reformers who champion how schools should be. “Should be” is the key phrase in reform because buried within each major reform that has swept across U.S. schools with either gale-force winds or stiff breezes is a vision of a utopian schooling and a “good” place for children to be.

Remember the overall purpose of tax-supported public schools is to prepare the young to become adults. Stating the purpose, however, neither points to what aspects of adulthood schools should be primary (e.g., getting a job, participating in the community, pushing for social and political reform in the larger culture, etc.) nor how that schooling seeking such a purpose is to be translated into daily activities.


–Some reformers want schools to prepare the young for occupations in which there are currently too few skilled workers and managers (see here).

–Some reformers re-create teacher-centered schools that inculcate students with basic content, skills, and civic virtues including patriotism (see here).

–Some reformers seek schools where students interests, passions, and intellect are central to both the curriculum and instruction and their well-being is nurtured (see here)

–Some reformers desire schools where students become adults prepared to work for social justice (see here).

–Some reformers are eager to dismantle the two century-old age-graded school and in its stead replace it with technologically rich settings where individual students have completely personalized playlists tailored to who they are (see here).

Of course, the last utopian vision of pervasive technologies geared to “personalized learning, ” unless it is an end unto itself, has to be hitched to one or the other of the three educational utopias.

No doubt there are other utopian visions and variations of the above ones. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say that all of these utopian visions have been dreamt of by earlier generations of reformers.

A century ago, another generation of reformers fought for schools to prepare the young for an industrial economy where both skilled and unskilled hands were needed (see here).

Another generation of reformers wanted schools to prepare the young to be knowledgeable, straight-thinking, and proud Americans of high moral character who would advance their community and nation (see here).

Periodically, past reformers wanted schools to be student-centered in what was learned and how it was learned (see here).

And past reformers saw schools as social laboratories where children and youth can practice creating a better, more just society reducing injustice and inequality (see here).

My point is simple: Tax-supported public schools have had multiple purposes for at least two centuries. Each purpose has a vision of utopia–of what “good” schooling looks like– embedded in it. And over the last century, reformers again and again have contested these competing visions.

So when asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward? I reply that there is no one utopian school, it depends on which purpose of schooling you value the most. If pressed, I will say what I believe. Then I ask the questioner: what is your utopian vision?

Nearly always, the person answers with either one of the above past and present version noted above or a combination of them. I then follow up with the point that there are (and have been) many visions of “good” schools that reformers have tried and that currently we are in the midst of a three-decade long vision which prizes as the primary purpose of schooling, preparing students to be adults who can get jobs in an ever-changing economy.








*David Tyack died in October 2016. He was 85 years old.



Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “Tinkering Toward Whose Utopia?

  1. Hello Professor Cuban.

    Thank you for this post as I have been wrestling with this question myself – though admittedly phrased in a less eloquent manner.

    If I may ask a follow up: how do we get reformers, educators, and parents to recognize that the utopia of our students may not match the utopia of our pasts?

    Whether considering the influx of technology, the shifting demographics of student populations, or the increasing need to develop global and national citizens, each factor contributes to the changing context through which our students not only experience school but will also experience life. So, how do we bring the community of stakeholders together to look at the challenge of school through a more student-centered, problem-specific lens?

    Thank you,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the thoughtful questions you pose, Beth. Without more detail behind your first question, I would refer back to the final two paragraphs of my post. The post is about utopias for public schools that derive from the purposes of tax-supported public schools. I have no idea what students, past and present, idealize as educational utopias although I could speculate. Perhaps, you could clarify further what you are after.

      • Hello Professor Cuban.

        If the purpose of tax-supported public schools is a combination of preparing students for the economy and active participation in the community, then perhaps the utopia to consider is that which the students might ultimately experience. So, how do we get stakeholders to recognize that if the purpose is to prepare students for getting a job, then the task requirements of those jobs requires a different skill set (Autor, Levy, & Murnane, 2003; Frey & Osborne, 2013; Levy & Murnane, 2013; World Economic Forum, 2016). That may imply that from the student’s perspective, a utopian experience to achieve the requisite skills would require a different schooling than during the previous era.

        On the other hand, if the purpose of tax-supported, public schools is to prepare students for participating in the community, pushing for reform in the larger culture, etc., then given the changing demographics and influence of globalization, how do we shift the conversation of a utopian experience towards a more multicultural approach?

        Either way, if the question is “whose utopia” – even within the context of public schools – do we need to shift the focal point to the students since their context is the one that has changed since the enactment of the previous reforms that you mentioned?

        Thank you,

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the reply, Beth.The multiple purposes of public schooling are politically determined by local, state, and federal policies. What goes on in the larger society shapes which of the purposes of schooling come to dominate curriculum, school organization, and instruction. For example, vocational education to prepare early 20th century youth for industrial workplaces came about from federal, state, and local policies aimed at keeping economic pace with Great Britain and Germany at that time; ditto for those post-Nation at Risk report condemning U.S. students’ low test scores on international tests have led to decades where standards, testing, and accountability have prevailed to tie schooling to the economy.Your response seems to make choosing which purpose should prevail in public schools is a choice that educators make. It is not. Those decisions are political ones reflecting economic, social, and political problems in the nation. Historically, schools have been drafted to solve national problems time and again. The only time I can think of when school reformers used language that you use in your last sentence is during the height of the Progressive movement in schools during the 1920s and 1930s. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Kathleen T Hayes

    Dr. Cuban, your takeaway from Beth’s comments, specifically, that she’s implying that educators are responsible for deciding the purpose of public schooling, is different from how I read her questions and commentary. Beth, correct me if my understanding is not accurate, but to me, it sounds like you are asking how ALL stakeholders — parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers, legislators — shift the conversation about and. ultimately, the focus of schooling toward a more modern, realistic, student-informed purpose. It’s an idealistic view, for sure, but one that I share because, as Dr. Cuban points out, educators don’t decide the purpose of schooling. But they should, in large part, in my humble opinion.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Kathleen, for your comment on clarifying what Beth wrote about who should be determining primary purpose of public schooling. Over a century ago during the height of the Progressive movement when reformers believed deeply in education becoming a science, an elite group of academics, policymakers, and educators sought to end local school boards and lay control of direction for schools to take and let educators make the key decisions on direction of schools. That movement failed for many reasons. David Tyack in the One Best System documents that moment well. In my opinion, having professional educators decide on the direction that public schools (as reformers desired a century ago) is a mistake on two grounds. First, educator views on what is the best direction vary greatly from traditional to progressive.There is no uniformity among professional educators that I have seen or researched over the past two centuries. Second, in this democracy where lay control of public schools makes non-professionals in charge (the same principle that the President decides major military decisions not the Joint Chiefs of Staff), I would reject the notion that professional educators should decide both the direction and manner that schools should move. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, Kathleen.

      • Hello Dr. Cuban and Kathleen.

        Thank you for the continued conversation. Kathleen does understand the context of my question as I am wondering how to help policy makers, parents, community member stakeholders, and educators to understand that it might be time to create a new vision of “utopia” for the students.

        Dr. Cuban, in your 2013 article, Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice?, you wrote that reforms have assumed that structural changes, such as adding technology, would change practice. You attribute this fallacy to three errors in policy maker thinking: 1 – redesigning structures will change instruction; 2 – policy makers see schools as complicated and not complex systems; 3 – there is a fundamental error in thinking that teacher quality is the same as quality of teaching.

        Maybe a better way to phrase my question would be how to help the policy makers to overcome their own enculturation into the existing utopia of schools such that they can envision a new one that better meets the needs of the current generation of students? I do agree that change and direction needs to occur at the policy level, vs with individual educators, and do not intend to advocate for a progressive or traditional style of education as there are merits in both. However, given the shifting landscape, culture, demographics, and realities that our students face today, how do we help policy makers recognize that they may also need to ask new or different questions when determining the best way forward for students? To bring this back to my original question, how do we help the policy makers define the students’ utopia.

        Thank you both,

      • larrycuban

        Thanks again Beth and Kathleen for keeping this thread going. Now, as to your question about getting policymakers to frame (or re-frame) a different direction than the current one of preparing the young for the workplace, political action to persuade such policymakers (local boards of education? state legislatures? federal officials?)is necessary. As for me now, I write and try to persuade people to see school reform and practice through varied lens, not just one. To remind people that there are multiple versions of utopias out there and that political debate and action are required.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s