What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 1)

For the past two years, I have researched and written a book on Silicon Valley classrooms, schools, and districts that are “best cases” of technology integration. I published over a dozen posts on the blog of classroom observations I made in Silicon Valley schools during 2016.

I am in the last phase of wrapping up this project. Next week I will send in the page proofs that the publisher sent me to find typos and other errors. The book will come out next spring. The title is: The Flight of the Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet: Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.

Doing the research and writing this book I found very satisfying. Now, what’s next?

For the past few months that I have gone over the copy-edited manuscript that the publisher sent and now these page proofs, I have begun searching for a question that puzzles me and for which I have no ready answer. This is not an easy process. Many false starts and diversions. It is a process I have gone through many times. I have learned to trust the muddling, zig-zag path that I follow. I believe that some  question will emerge and get its hooks into me. So for the next few posts I will try out a possible project to see if has “legs,” as some say. Comments are welcomed


There can be no success in the absence of failure

Henri Varenne and Ray McDermott, 1999

We always learn more from failure than success. Success teaches us nothing.

Henry Marsh, 2017


Success and failure are entwined like a DNA helix. You can’t have one without the other. Yet determining what is success and failure in schooling the young, sustaining businesses, waging war, and providing hospital health care is both uncertain and even contradictory. There is a constant thread that ties success to failure in the helix and that is organizational performance in achieving its goals. Yet even defining high- and low- performance in an organization can be dodgy. Consider the opening and closing of businesses.


After five years, about half of all new businesses have and shut their doors. For companies that have survived longer than five years, even decades, closures still occur. In the past decade retailers such as Borders book stores, The Limited clothing, Thom McAn shoes, Blockbusters video, Circuit City electronics, and A & P groceries have gone belly up.

Bankruptcies and closure for new and old firms means failure; companies lacked the cash to continue. Those whose revenues exceeded expenditures year after year survived. And survival means success. Correct? Not quite.

A surprising percentage of those closures made money and still closed their doors. They met the performance standard by which businesses are judged—net annual profit–and still shut down. For example, many small retailers who want to retire or try something else close by selling their profitable business to someone else. Other companies close by getting bought out or merging with a larger firm.

And even other successful businesses, such as restaurants  that have served customers  for over a decade (60 percent of new restaurants shutter their windows in the first three years) decided to sell their restaurant or simply close down.

Also consider that some U.S. companies that have been by most metrics successful (Best Buy, Walmart, McDonalds, and Starbucks) have failed to make a dent in other countries even closing stores they had opened.

And there is the puzzling case that some businesses fail to make a profit and are considered successful. Consider those high-tech businesses such as Amazon that initially failed to bring in sufficient sales to keep the company financially afloat—the over-riding goal of a new company—yet venture capitalists and eager investors plowed cash into these profit-poor companies in their early years before they became the behemoth businesses they are now. No profit yet successful?


Winning wars—World War II (1941-1945)—and losing wars—Vietnam (1955-1975) are based upon armed forces’ performance in achieving its mission. In World War II, for the U.S. in concert with its allies, the mission (or over-riding goal) was securing unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy. That military mission was achieved by the end of 1945. Yet the U.S. armed forces lost many bloody battles in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific along the way. Losing battles but winning a war?

In Vietnam, the U.S. government’s mission changed over the two decades from supporting the French in holding its colony and preventing a Communist takeover of the country to supporting a new state of South Vietnam (after the French exited) and helping that nation repel North Vietnam’s army and supporters within South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Beginning under President John Kennedy, U.S. military advisers were sent to aid the South Vietnamese (for history of war, see here, here, and here)

U.S. advisers were insufficient to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese army and indigenous insurgents who were helped by Chinese and Soviet arms and money so President Lyndon Johnson eventually sent a half-million U.S. soldiers into the country to fight both the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of North Vietnam.

All of this to stop the Communist North from taking over South Vietnam. Why? The belief was that, like falling dominoes. Were South Vietnam to fall, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma would turn Communist as well and would endanger U.S. interests in Asia.

Through the administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the public was told repeatedly that the U.S was winning the war and achieving its goal of halting the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, even as U.S. officials shifted from helping the French to protecting South Vietnam from North Vietnam through bombings of Hanoi to starting peace talks in 1969 with the North. Those peace talks led to the U.S. beginning to withdraw its forces in 1973 and finally leaving in 1975. Within a few years, the North had swept through the South consolidating the nation into one Vietnam. Declarations of “success” from U.S. Presidents ended in failure.

Fifteen years later Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, to protect the free passage of oil from the Gulf, ordered armed forces to free Kuwait from Iraqi control. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 swiftly liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces which retreated back to Baghdad. The brief war reduced the influence of Saddam Hussein in the region. The mission was accomplished. This short, limited war had few U.S. casualties and was a clear-cut “success” for the military following the failure of the previous war in Vietnam.

Just over a decade later President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. The mission driving the invasion in 2003 was to get rid of “weapons of mass destruction” held by Saddam Hussein. No such weapons were ever found.

The mission was successful militarily, however, in routing the Iraqi army, taking Baghdad, and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, it was a diplomatic failure in that no “weapons of mass destruction” were found and the subsequent occupation of the country and Sunni insurgency against the elected Shiite government surprised both military and diplomatic planners.

A protracted civil war between the elected Shiite government and the Sunni minority led to another change in mission under Presidents Bush and Obama by initially increasing the numbers of troops sent to the country. Over the course of the invasion and occupation, U.S. troops won key battles in cities controlled by insurgents yet diplomatic efforts to create an independent, democratically elected, and inclusive government strong enough to defend itself against Kurdish and Sunni insurgents ultimately failed.

President Bush began withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2008 and President Barak Obama presided over the final exit except for advisers to assist Iraqi forces, in 2010.

As one retired U.S. Colonel put the military effort in Iraq in these years: “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

The invasion of Iraq and a near decade long occupation can hardly be considered a “success” even with the destruction of the Iraqi army and ousting of Hussein especially in light of the strong influence Iran subsequently gained in the Iraqi government and persistent turbulence—the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)–in the Middle East, specifically the civil war in Syria and its triggering of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe. That successful U.S. military intervention in 2003 morphed into a diplomatic and political failure.

So winning many battles in Vietnam and Iraq yet failing on diplomatic and political fronts resulted in the U.S. losing these limited wars, except for liberating Kuwait in 1991.

Part 2 will look at “success” and “failure” and its idiosyncrasies in providing health care in hospitals and schooling.




Filed under school reform policies

17 responses to “What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 1)

  1. Larry. I deeply admire – and draw upon routinely- your detailed documentation of past reforms and your insight into its implications for the present. I look forward to reading how you tie the “uncertainties” of sustaining businesses, waging war, and providing hospital health care with schooling. My question is will the majority of thought leaders of school reform — and shapers of policy — come to embrace failure in teaching and learning the way our society seems to accept it in business, the military, and health care.

    I was talking to a program officer of late who was worried that the next generation of teaching and learning policies will be too soft on teachers as the strict use of test scores to judge them are less and less emphasized. What explains the differences between the relentless blame that is placed on teachers for the ills of schooling versus what might be found in other fields and sectors? I have some hunches. But I bet you will have some keen insights.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Barnett, for your comment. You offer a line of inquiry I had not fully considered–ubiquity of blaming teachers for failure of schooling compared to the acceptance of failure in other fields. Whether thought leaders–whomever they are–will come to accept such an equivalence, well, I don’t know. Probably not. Won’t stop me from delving into it. I would like to hear your hunches.

      • Larry. So many superb education historians, like you, and sociologists have pointed to race, class, and gender in the politics of advancing teaching as a profession. Almost 30 years ago, Geraldine Clifford noted: “The perceptions that teachers were ‘mothering’ or that women teachers were only marking time until marriage, had unfortunate effects for the image of professionalism…. Other professions gained control by laying claim to specific bodies of knowledge, [but] what has characterized a professional teacher was altruistic service, natural ability, and virtuous womanhood.”

        Looking at the news this evening I wonder about General Joseph Dunford and the ambush of our soldiers in Niger. Will the military get a pass for what at the least appears to be a severe failure in waging war against ISIS?

        What would happen if Randi (a trained lawyer BTW) or Lilly (a highly recognized teacher from Utah) had to report on how a school that the unions were supporting were not succeeding? Granted tendency to blame teachers has a lot to do with the resistance to “government schools” and the role that unions play in supporting investments – and more $$ — in public education. But I believe the larger issue may be matters of gender and American culture and archaic attitudes toward (please note the quotes) “the weaker sex.” Less than a year ago PBS ran a piece – “Few women run the nation’s school districts. Why?” (See https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/women-run-nations-school-districts)

        76% of all teachers in America are female. Same in Finland. But check out my blog series built from my trip to Finland (w/ a group of educators, LDH included, researchers, reformers. etc)…and the last entry on 8/24/12 – https://www.teachingquality.org/sites/default/files/BB%20Finland%20blog%20posts%20copy.pdf

        Thanks again, Larry. I follow your blog religiously and look forward to reading your new book!

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the follow-up comment, Barnett. That teaching became a female-dominated profession in the mid-19th century and the policy consequence of a gender-based profession (consider social workers and nurses also) is something I have to think much more about. Also thanks for the links.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I think it is a great idea to look at the concept of “success” from this broad sweep of history. Finding links to schooling is much more difficult.

    Your start on this challenge reminded me of my brother’s career, which produced a major award for his work on the MMS–multi spectral scanner installed in the first earth resources satellite. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=76484&eocn=image&eoci=related_image

    Perhaps the larger point is that histories of specific projects and biographies of individuals are among other ways to examine the idea of success (failure). Finding specific connections to schools and teachers is much more difficult. The short term solution– a reliance on test scores and graduation rates is the easy and misleading way to judge success, but it has been enshrined in legislation and it is one that Bill Gates recently put forward to the Council of Great City Schools.
    I think every teacher who is really connected to students understands that there is little certaintity in how well their students will do after school. In any case I look forward to reading your blog.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. I have been thinking about looking at various innovations and their life cycles (open space buildings, Platoon School, Dalton Plan) but had not considered biographies of individuals. Thanks for comment and link to MMS and those photos over time of the Earth.

  3. I would like to propose that you consider three challenges that grow from your recent work:

    1) I certainly agree that we don’t have consensus on a suite of success metrics that fully reflect the mission of education, and especially public schools. And I believe you would agree that we have many examples of metrics and supporting policies that provide very incomplete and distorted pictures of school success, thus leading educators and policy makers to poor decisions. When the history of No Child Left Behind is written, I would expect many examples of this phenomenon.

    Another way of making the point: we know how to make cost-cost comparisons of program alternatives in schools, but with just a few exceptions, it is still beyond the state of the art to make cost-efficiency, or cost-benefit tradeoffs. Consequently, administrative and policy decisions based on data are rarely possible.

    I’d also argue that attempts to use improvement in test scores as the primary measure of success for the investment in ICT is an example of poor choice of metric. Many ICT applications are intended to reduce cost, improve access, and (in a few cases) save teacher time and perhaps reallocate it for improved productivity. A simple example: we have seen that computer-based tutorial technologies are effective within their limited goals, when implemented as designed. But we also know that human tutors using effective tutorial models have much larger effect sizes (see Slavin’s recent column on this conclusion). Instead of depending on ICT solely as a tutor, what would it take to use ICT tools of all kinds to leverage teacher time and their work environment to make human tutoring scalable in public schools?

    2) Another example of a topic you could address: you have effectively argued that the schools do not change according to any linear, centrally planned, systemic change management plan. The excellent examples of ICT innovation you have published in preparation of your book are all small-scale, incremental improvements, usually by a single teacher. Is a logical extension of your evidence is that innovation propagates bottom-up, and typically does not preserve its defining characteristics as it reaches scale? Are there examples of innovation that reached scale in other ways (elementary reading comes to mind)? Based on your observations, what can you say about the necessary and sufficient conditions for innovation to scale and sustain in a school district or state? Or is that a hopeless question?

    3) And, a third example of a question you could address: given your observations, would you argue that ICT does, or does not, have a necessary role in innovation in schools? Would you agree that ICT is not a sufficient strategy to drive change, regardless of what the ICT-driven innovation is?

    • larrycuban

      Rob, you raise questions I had not thought of in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. Much for me to think about in going forward with this project. Thank you.

  4. Jim Masters

    Interesting that the program officer in Barnett’s comments was concerned about future teaching and learning policy being too soft on teachers. A number of questions come to mind. When did educational success become defined by our ability to be hard on educators and students? How far are we willing to go in the name of improvement? At what point did education become a product as opposed to a process? Your thoughts?

    • larrycuban

      You raise a point I have been wrestling with, Jim. I need to distinguish between strategies used to achieved success–accountability, better teacher ed–and the metrics that are actually used to judge success–test scores, graduation rates, etc. Your last point about when education became a product rather than process, I believe occurred in the past 30 years (using Nation at Risk report as a marker)with school reforms pushed buy a coalition of civic and business leaders. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Joe Luft

    Larry, I always appreciate your public thinking process and your willingness to share rough drafts of your thinking. As you point out, half of all new businesses close down within five years which is roughly equivalent to our national teacher attrition rate – a failure rate that we’ve come to accept in many ways. The average person isn’t shocked by the statistic since it’s assumed that some businesses simply won’t survive. There’s an accepted failure rate. With a new business that may not be generating a profit but is attracting investors, there’s an underlying belief that it will eventually improve and pay off. If not, capital eventually disappears. In a war, there’s a finite objective (which can change over time) such as killing more of the other side, controlling territory, taking control of a government, etc. This leads me to wonder if we think about failure in public schools in the same manner or if some attempts to privatize public education indicate an erosion of a shared consenus. Most businesses and wars are perceived as long-term, sustainable endeavors – is there still a similar consensus about public schooling? Is there an accepted failure rate (or perhaps an unstated one)? Is there a shared belief that we can’t “walk away” from public schools like businesses (sell it to another company, merge) or wars (change definition of victory)?

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate the time you (and others) have taken to comment on my initial thinking about success and failure, Joe. Changing the definition of “success’ and “failure” occurs in all three ventures, it seems to me. What you wonder about, Joe, whether the consensus around public schools being essential for a democracy is eroding with expansion of parental choice, well, I–like yourself–have thought along those lines but have not yet seen sufficient evidence (historically, that is) to reach that conclusion. Thanks for the comment.

  6. David F

    Hi Larry, Thanks again for tackling these big questions. I’ve been mulling over your post since you put it up and think the issues may revolve around what we actually want education to achieve in the US. I think you’ve written about this before, but the old problem of what ed’s mission is (prepping future employees/consumers, developing the whole person, developing good citizens, etc.) lies at the heart of the many reforms and failures we’ve seen come and go.

    Then there’s the curriculum itself–I’d like to point you to an edu-blogger, Martin Robinson in the UK, who has been posting a series of pieces on curriculum development that are very worthwhile reading. https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/

    It would seem to me that once we’ve gotten the mission and curriculum sorted, then we can talk pedagogy, which is a big issue, given the divide between “progressives” and “traditionalists” or constructivists and those wanting to apply the recent developments in cog psy to education. I just finished Making It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, which is a world apart from some of the prof dev I’ve had at my school.

    Once all of that is sorted, then it seems we can look at innovations and develop metrics. However, until the Big Picture stuff is dealt with (which may be “never”), we’re going to have a muddle.

    • larrycuban

      The points you raise about the multi-goal mission of public schools, David, is in Part 2 on Success and Failure. given my take on the history of schooling in the U.S. there has not been a time that “we’ve gotten the mission and curriculum sorted.” it has been a marathon of reform initiatives that focus on one of the many goals then another comes along as society shifts in what it wants from schools. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Nice work. Successus and failure both are the part of life. The best school and people are those who learn frome the reasons of failure and try to adopt the way of success.

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