Reforming Public Schools–Small or Giant Steps?

Some weekends ago, I attended a celebration of a friend’s book being published. Both my friend and his wife are former students–I see each of them for lunch every few months and we catch up with one another’s families and what each of us has been doing.

At the gathering in their home I saw people I hadn’t seen in many years. Food and drink were plentiful out on the patio but I grew tired of standing with my cane and went into  their living room and sat.  Toddlers and teenagers and  adults flowed easily between rooms and the outside patio. Someone came and sat next to me and we engaged in a conversation that brought to mind many prior discussions I have had with fellow teachers, university colleagues, and graduate students as well as policymakers, parents, and researchers over the years. So here is my version of that conversation.

The young man was in his 40s (yeah, to me being a 40-something is young) and an administrator in a medium sized California district. I had known him when he was an undergraduate student and his family as well—years ago his mother was a student in one of my classes as she completed her doctorate. So the conversation flowed easily about his family, friendship with my former students, and work. And when it came to his job as an administrator is when the conversation turned to the title of this post.

He told me about the persistent conflict he has faced in working as a teacher, principal, and now district administrator about changing the school system. As I recall, he asked for my opinion on the question that has nagged at him for the past few years: why work within a broken public school system and make small changes that make that traditional system work a tad better for teachers and students than it did before when what is called for are major, fundamental changes that get rid of the existing system and create a far better, more equitable one? It is a question that I have wrestled with my entire career within public schools and one that I have answered for myself. Now here was this fine young man asking the same question that had bedeviled me for decades.

I did give my answer in a step-wise argument very familiar to me because I had worked out its pieces over decades. Since it was a back-and-forth conversation the steps  in the argument were more circular and less linear than as I present them below.

First, 90 percent of all children and youth attend public schools. If you want to influence the young, you work within the system.

Second, few, if any, public institution serving the young, old, the ill, and victims of crime have tossed the existing system and installed a fundamentally new one save for instances of political revolution such as had occurred in the America, France, Russia, French, and China, natural disasters such as Katrina in New Orleans or similar cataclysmic events. What has occurred most often in these public institutions has been incremental, not fundamental change.*

Third, each of the above public institutions that have significantly improved over time in reaching their stated goals have made incremental changes in reducing the gap in achievement between minorities and whites and increasing more fairness and equity than had existed before.  Accumulating small steps in building stairs that reach desired goals took many years, political savvy, thought out strategies, and patience on the part of school boards and superintendents. Far from perfect today such districts as Long Beach (CA) under Carl Cohen (1992-2002) and Christopher Steinhauser (2002 to present) who have led the district continuously for a quarter-century and Boston (MA) under Tom Payzant for 11 years) stand out as exemplars of incrementalism geared to achieving goals.

Fourth, those superintendents, principals, and teachers who ardently seek fundamental changes on a short time frame in their districts, schools, and classrooms often exit within a few years disappointed adding their voices to those who allege the intractability of public schools and their resulting failure.

The clinking of a glass announcing a few words from the newly published author ended our conversation.

Had I more time, I would have added the ultimate point that each educator has the deeply personal task of eventually deciding what to do.

The question as I see it is: Do I work within schools and seek incremental changes with like-minded colleagues focused on over-arching goals and willing to learn the necessary skills and make the commitment of time spent in schools and districts or, instead, do I work outside schools in mobilizing political changes to gain paid family leave, expanded unemployment insurance, better health benefits, inexpensive housing, unionizing workers, running for political office or aiding officials who seek changes in economic, political, social, and cultural structures that frame the democratic and market-driven society in which we live?

For tax-supported public schools mirror the larger society and that society has historically strong beliefs, assumptions, and structures that shape what occurs in public institutions such as schools. While changes can and do occur in schools and districts, they will be incremental and maybe significant if harnessed in a concerted way to achieve particular goals. There is a choice.

I had made my decision to work within public schools years ago. My young friend was wrestling with his decision now.



*The district administrator knew well what I meant in distinguishing incremental from fundamental changes. For those readers who do not. Here are the differences.

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity and fairness of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, segregation, creating better people). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks. Such changes would mean substantial alterations in the ways that teachers think about content, pedagogy, and learning.



Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “Reforming Public Schools–Small or Giant Steps?

  1. BarnettBerry

    Larry. Poignant piece. Again. Your words conjured a related thought, and perhaps a basis for why working to ignite change inside of public schools, as opposed to disrupting from the outside, may yield better outcomes over time.

    Like you, I understand why reformers see the basic school as an old car — or “jalopy far beyond repair” and we need to “consider other forms of transportation.” (In some ways I am one of them.) But those who have to drive the new transport have been deeply socialized to operate in the age-old one. And so have the ones who are engineering the new ones.

    Public schooling — as Dan Lortie pointed over 40 years ago — is some unique. Almost everyone — teachers and administrators as well as parents, business leaders, think tank analysts, and policymakers — has spent about 15,000 hours in traditional schools and classroom as students. In doing so they have developed perceptions of teaching and teachers, and in doing so, hold deep-seeded notions what is schooling. They want schools to be better, but often may not want them to look much different than they were when they themselves were students in them.

    I believe, over time and with deep respect for the complexities of how schools change, educators and reformers can change their deep-seated notions of teaching and learning. But they have to do so together.

    I just read Tom Arnett’s terrific piece on The Teacher’s Quest for Progress. (Tom is with the Christensen Institute, known for the need for disrupting schools.) He warns of “coercive” reforms that do not take into account what teachers do. He points to “one-size fits all” initiatives that “tend to tell teachers what they need” rather than “attending to what they demand.” As Tom notes we all have “habits of the present” and changing them requires tending to the tensions, and even “anxieties” we all hold in making the major shifts in practice that students deserve. Fundamental shifts in content, pedagogy, and learning requires educators not just to buy into reforms but co-own them with not just reformers but also with parents and students themselves. Doing so does indeed require more time for teachers to lead in fundamentally different ways.

    Thanks, again, Larry (and Tom too).

  2. A math teacher at a local public school resigned at Christmas “for personal reasons”. A friend of his who is a friend of mine asked him to elaborate. He was failing some students and the administration wanted those students to graduate so the administration changed the grades without getting the approval of the teacher. Or even telling him about it for that matter. This is a philosophy issue on the part of the school system. Presently it is “graduation matters at all costs” or, the truth be told, “funding matters at all costs”. Giant steps are needed here. They will not happen. Even small steps are frowned upon if they affect funding and jobs. Funding drives public education. Any reform that affects funding (like failing students or removing trouble makers) is bound to fail. The only solution would require a major change in public school education philosophy.

    • larrycuban

      Perhaps, Garth. You make a solid point. The details matter, however, and the full story of what occurred with the math teacher has yet to be told.

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