School Reform in the U.S.: Naivete and Fatalism

If naivete is a danger, so is fatalism.”*

The history of school reform has been a back-and-forth journey between hyperactive innocence and passive resignation. I will explain this and give examples shortly but I want to ask one question and then make one fact clear before I do.

Why has school reform occurred again and again? One would think that reformers who have defined the educational and social problems to be solved, planned solutions to those problems, and adopted remedies would be satisfied and walked away confident that the problems would disappear. Not so. Turns out that the social and educational problems reformers, generation after generation, aim to solve hang around after well-intentioned problem-solvers exit. Then another generation of wannabe reformers enter stage right or stage left, do their thing and float off the stage (see here, here, and here).

The fact is that for tax-supported public schools in the U.S. there has been a perennial school “crisis” since the late-19th century (see here, here, and here). Naive reformers have attacked (and continue to) with gusto and money again and again, “crises”, leaving disappointed practitioners, parents, and researchers slinking away, resigned to failure in the wake of perverse changes they had not anticipated. The above quote says it well.

Some examples of dangerous naivete and fatalism will help.


1. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to the Newark public schools in 2010. With an additional $100 million raised in private funds, reformers closed Newark schools, created more charters, and vowed to improve abysmal student test scores in math and reading. Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and others hailed the grants. However, much pushback from a subsequent mayor, community activists, and parents, largely ignored by the donors in giving the money to school officials, complicated the reforms (see here, here, and here). And the results, at best, have been mixed. At worst, many consultants reaped a bonanza.

Chalkbeat journalist Matt Barnum concluded:

*The overall effect of the reforms on student learning was mixed.

*Students seemed to benefit from school closures.

* Charter schools continued to outperform the district, but have grown less effective.

*The results don’t show whether the reforms “worked” — because that’s a complicated question.


2. Technology transforms teaching and learning. The heady optimism of donors, Silicon Valley companies, and venture capitalists that teachers and students using devices and software will revolutionize teaching and learning have long been the hyperbole peddled by enthusiasts since the earliest desktops entered schools in the early 1980s.

Even with accessibility broadened to where nearly 1:1 devices are available to students in many schools, they are partially used in lessons–save for those schools and businesses that offer online courses or have established cyber schools.

The fact is that many teachers continue to struggle in integrating devices and software into their lessons.

Nonetheless, digital tools have been incorporated into most teachers’ repertoire of classroom activities during the school day. But transformed teaching? Hardly.

Classroom furniture has surely been rearranged compared to the 1950s. Whiteboards have replaced blackboards. And “smart” boards have been installed. But the usual format of a lesson–beginning, middle, and end; dividing class into small groups, allowing for independent work, whole group discussions, etc. etc. etc.–all of these continue (see here, here, and here). Incremental changes have occurred in teaching over the decades but transformation, not so. And, I for one, find that kind of classroom change historically consistent with other top-down reforms and useful to learners and the public.


1. School reforms fail. Wrong.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this successful?

Or consider the kindergarten. An innovation initiated by late-19th century middle-class women in various cities who wanted young, poor children to get experiences that would help them and their families do better in life. Beginning in private schools, by the early 1900s, city school systems slowly incorporated these private kindergartens into public schools making them K-8 schools (see here and here). By the end of the 20th century, pre-kindergarten classes for three- and four-year olds had become part of many urban districts (see here).

2. Largely minority and poor urban schools fail again and again.   Not so. Instances of schools and districts enrolling poor children of color succeeding by the dominant metrics (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, college admissions) have appeared since the late-1970s when the Effective Schools movement emerged. Such schools and districts are surely the exception but they do exist especially when superintendent, principal and teacher leadership at these sites remain stable over time. Examples of such schools and districts that have lasted are:

*Harlem Children’s Zone

*Summit Charter Schools

*Prize winning urban districts

Keep in mind, however, that these districts and schools are not the rule. The dismal fact is that most schools and districts with predominately poor and minority children and youth are under-resourced, have inexperienced or beaten-down teaching staffs, and a record of entering and exiting principals and superintendents who cannot get a grip on the schools they lead. The record of continuing failure–using metrics of the day–tell the same story over and over again.

Reformers, then, have blended naivete and fatalism over generations, ignoring the past and seldom listening to those who work daily in classrooms. That ignorance has been dangerous for schools then as it is now.


*Yascha Mounk, “Figures of Division,” The New Yorker, January 28, 2019, p. 33



Filed under school reform policies

11 responses to “School Reform in the U.S.: Naivete and Fatalism

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Keep in mind these districts and school are not the rule.
    Right. Billionaires funded these examples, some have been supported by inflows of federal dollars, and not all have been stable over time, especially those listed as Broad awardees.

  2. David F

    Hi Larry, thanks for this. For me, one dynamic in my 20 years of teaching that seems consistent is the effort to open schools up to more ed products that cost more and more. Many (though not all) ed reforms are attached to something someone wants to sell. Once that thing gets into the public mind that it is a must-have, then there’s lots of profits to be made. Not sure if you’re familiar with it, but a great read is: Alireza Sayadmansour and Mehdi Nassaji, “Educational Technology along with the ‘Uncritical Mass’ Versus Ethics,” British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 63 no. 3 (2013), pp. 289-300.

  3. Great post. I re-read it a few times. Thank you.

    You write: “The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school.”

    I will stipulate longevity but question efficacy. Don’t we want some some sort of comparison group?

    (I realize you may be nodding “Yes, and that’s why I’ve blogged about the evidence here, here, and here”….forgive my weak memory!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Mike. And yes, I was nodding as you guessed. Also keep in mind that “efficacy” has changed in meaning over the decades–and is still changing now.

  4. Educating Human Potential

    Thanks for this great post and succinct summary of school reform, naivete, and failures. I also celebrate some of the historical successes but think the future of school demands a completely different structure-broader grouping of ages, real experiences with real consequences, opportunities for children to develop independence, creativity, and critical thinking-authentic Montessori does all of this and more. Increasingly research demonstrates its efficacy and success. Love reading your blog!

  5. Educating Human Potential

    Reblogged this on Educating Human Potential and commented:
    Great summary of some of the challenges and efforts of school reform. Now, let us support authentic Montessori as a solution.

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