Success, Failure, and “Mediocrity” in U.S. Schools (Part 1)

For the past month or so I have been wrestling with questions that have bugged me for a long time.

I have learned over the years that school reform have life cycles that follow a singular pattern. Join me in a fast-forward trip through school reform in the U.S.

Late-19th century Progressives, for example, saw overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, immigrants speaking dozens of languages and unfamiliar with being American, rote recitation, massive inefficiencies in administering schools, and students wholly unprepared for an industrial workplace. Schools were failing to educate children and youth. It was a crisis that had to be ended. New curricula, medical and social services, different forms of instruction, innovative school organization and democratic governance became the established ideology for “good” public schools between the 1890s and 1940s.

After World War II, a rising movement of anti-communism rejected Progressivism in schools and spurred by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union sought to inject academic steel into a Swiss cheese curriculum to produce more engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Again what constituted a “good” school shifted.

By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement spilled over both segregated and desegregated schools altering again Americans’ sense of what a “good” school is.

And in subsequent decades, economic fears of Japanese and German exports out-performing U.S. cars, electronics, and other products  led to business and civic leaders looking to schools to bolster an inefficient and sagging economy.  A Nation at Risk (1983) coalesced those fears into a war plan to revive the economy through making schools stronger academically and turning out graduates who could enter the workplace prepared with requisite knowledge and skills. Again, the definition of a “good” school shifted. The U.S. continues to this day to be in the thrall of this education-cum-economy ideology.

In this hop-skip-and-jump through the history of U.S. school reform a pattern emerged.

First, policy elites in each generation, exaggerating existing conditions, condemned schools for their low quality. Schools had failed. They graduated students unfit to enter the existing political, economic, and social world.  Then these ardent school reformers proposed governance, curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms that would turn failing schools into successful ones often underestimating the complexity of schools as institutions and the resources needed to make the proposed changes actually alter how schools operated and teachers taught. Finally, after time had passed, as schools didn’t conform to the expectations of these fervent reformers, they walked away in disappointment and disgust saying that the schools were not much better than when they had started. Their reforms had foundered. They blamed, among others, resistant teachers, unthinking administrators, a clogged bureaucracy, and hostile parents.

As one generation of reformers passed through, another arose and the pattern reasserted itself anew. Historians and social scientists have documented these cycles of reform over the past 150 years (see here, here, here, and here).

The chronic defeat of major school reforms authored by Progressives, Civil Rights leaders, CEOs and U.S. Presidents to achieve their lofty goals of fundamentally altering the system of schooling over the past century to school the “whole child,” raise all students to high proficiency levels in reading and math, and “personalize learning”  reflects the often-used language within schooling of “success” and “failure.”

Commonly used to describe reform initiatives and innovations, these labels are also part of the DNA of schooling in the U.S. Some students are “winners” in the race to get a gold star for classroom work, a high grade-point-average, become valedictorian. Other students throw up their hands and drop out of school. And there are those–most students–in the middle doing the best they can do but nonetheless settling for seldom becoming a winner while avoiding being seen as a loser.

Over the decades, I have come to see both success and failure in reform linked to definitions of success and failure in classrooms, schools, districts, state, and national systems of education. Reflecting on all of the research I have done, a puzzle slowly emerged yielding questions that I wanted to answer:

*Exactly what do “success” and “failure” mean in schooling the young in classrooms, schools, and districts?

*Where do these concepts of success and failure come from?

*What is the middle ground between success and failure in schools and society? Is it being average, middling, or mediocre?


In a series of earlier posts, I have taken a stab at answering the first two of these questions, drafting answers that made sense to me. I have received very helpful responses from readers as I re-think what I have written and begin writing the next draft.

For now, I want to explore in a few posts the unanswered question about what’s between success and failure. After all, daily life teaches us by age 7 that winners and losers do not capture the totality of experience; in most situations  we do not flat out win or lose, we often end up in the middle. Life is not a zero-sum game. Most children and youth realize that.

But the “middle,” “average,” and “mediocre,” in American culture, are negatively charged words. No one I know wants to be “mediocre.” Since most of us end up in the middle ranges in work, play, and life–how come such words carry the sting of  being a loser?

In part 2, I take up the concept of being in the middle of most distributions of talent, achievement, and life. And how in a society prizing meritocracy being in the middle has gained the stigma of being mediocre both in schooling and life.


Filed under school reform policies

14 responses to “Success, Failure, and “Mediocrity” in U.S. Schools (Part 1)

  1. David Patterson

    I have had similar questions myself, both on a personal level and with my work with school reform. Currently I am focusing effort on defining how good is good enough in the context of charter school renewal decisions. I look forward to your additional thoughts.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, David, the question of how good is good enough lurks behind some of the issues that have I have been thinking of as well. Whenever you are willing to share your thoughts about that, let me know.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I hope you will incorporate some discussion of belief about “talent” as a necessary, and perhaps essential personal attribute associated with “success.”

    In the last several decades recruiters of teachers (especially for TFA) have borrowed from the corporate world the idea that talent is a pre-condition for success in teaching. Developing a “talent pipeline” is job one in getting great teachers. Anything less than great, passionate, and full of talent is not good enough. You are familiar with this trope in language.

    The concept of talent is alive and well in the arts, (America’s Got Talent), in early designations of one or several children as the class “artists,” and the more general idea that success is tied as much to talent as it is to opportunity, training, and education. As defined by major foundations (especially Gates), success is getting ready for college, being accepted to college, and completing a college degree. Of course the irony is that Bill Gates did not follow that path.

    A 1975 Harris survey of public opinion asked people to opine whether talent or training was more important in relation to participating in varieties of art. Among those who were college-educated a lack of talent was perceived as a greater obstacle than a lack of training. For those with a high school education or less, a lack of training was the greater obstacle. The survey also produced some indication of the specific activities where public perceptions of the need for talent or training were more salient. Many of the same art activities were on the talent and the training lists, but not in the same relative order of endorsement as talent-centric or training-centric.

    Any Warhol, a student if success in the art world, is said to have equated success with “fame,” and fame with publicity. I think that the problem with defining success in relation to education is a problem not far removed from the enduring debates about success as a function of talent versus training, nature versus nurture, and perhaps for this generation fame versus obscurity.

    • larrycuban

      I hadn’t thought of “talent” as a component of success, as you phrased it, Laura. Thank you.

    • Chester Draws

      The emphasis on “passion” in teacher training bugs me. There needs to be some desire to do the job, but passion is vastly over-rated.

      A professional, intelligent and thoughtful teacher is much better than a passionately committed but slipshod and less thoughtful one. Yet the praise for teachers is largely directed at how hard they try and how much they care. I care for my students, which is why I try to stay rational and research what I am doing, rather than just adopting whatever strategy “feels” right.

      One reason why we struggle to get teachers to pay attention to research and to adopt their teaching as a result is that teachers excessively favour being passionate over them being thoughtful.

  3. Jim Masters

    I often wonder if our occupation of the ‘middle’ is due, in part, because the benefits of education emerge over time. Resulting in efforts and outcomes that are some days stellar and other days… not so much. I would be interested in your thoughts on the effect of an emphasis on accountability as it relates to instructional practice and the cultivation of talent.

    • larrycuban

      Surely agree, Jim, that the benefits of schooling emerge over time and, as you say range from stellar to less so. Which then gets me to think that most accountability schemes focus on what can be measured now; some of what can be measured now comes out of certain instructional practices but the cultivation of talent,I know of no accountability protocol that gets at that. Thanks for comment and question.

  4. School success is clearly a function of student success which is a function of the efforts, support, and expectations of two parent families (family culture). Successful schools have successful students thanks to collective family cultures that value education enough to make all the requisite sacrifices and efforts. The failure of school reform to recognize this has wasted monumental amounts of energy, time, and money. However, the concept of “school success” is a flawed idea. Had the reform movement had any serious leaders they would instead have focused on enriching opportunities, developing strong family/students supports, and lobbying intensely for the political restoration of economic hope (good jobs at a living wage). Instead, the latest variant of “school reform” (NCLB/CCSS/RTTT) used a threat-test-and-punish approach thinking that they could scare teachers into overriding family culture.

  5. This “success/failure” definition is a slippery thing. My local public school has the motto “Graduation matters” and they are very dedicated to it. So dedicated that they have lowered the standards to the point that some of their graduates are basically uneducated. Due to the way the public schools are funded quantity is a big winner over quality. It is still possible to get an excellent education in this school system but parents and students have to be proactive in selection or courses and teachers. The “graduation matters” trend has generated a teacher philosophy based on apathy and achieving the minimums. The administration admonishes teachers for not passing students. Teachers are encouraged to “make adjustments”. Success is measured by the number of graduates. Failure is not passing a student, no matter how little the student is willing to do or learn. I do not teach in the public school (I am at a private school) but my wife just retired from it and I have friends teaching in the system. It is not a good environment for a teacher who stresses academic achievement. I cannot imagine this local case is unique in the US. I am more inclined to think it is a trend. For schools to achieve “success” there has to be a change in philosophy to “Education matters”. Have the public schools gotten to the point where a high school diploma is considered a “right” if the student shows up occasionally? Is the way public education is funded driving this philosophy?

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