From Policy To Practice: Reforming American Schools and Classroom Lessons

I have just sent in my manuscript to the publisher entitled “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” Every book I have written in the past decade since I started this blog, I have posted the argument, drafts of chapters, and vignettes of schools and teacher lessons.

Now I am considering my next project. I would like to draw together certain themes that I have lived, taught about, and researched since I began teaching over a half-century ago. The title of this post captures those themes. For this post, I am offering the condensed argument I have thought of making in my next book. I attach no endnotes or citation of sources at this point. Just the distilled argument.

I am concerned that the logic of the argument is clear, crisply stated, and coherent. So I ask readers of this post to look for holes, errors, and missing parts that should be included. I would appreciate reader comments.

What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by political, organizational, and social forces:

First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past two centuries.

Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.

Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.

These three forces have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling indelibly marking  the journey that policies take from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ classrooms.


  1. For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.2 million teachers in charge of 51 million-plus students.

There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools can teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when school begins and ends each year.

This decentralized system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and occasions lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs.  These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and student access to instructional materials including new technologies.

Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.

That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind  (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education affected by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches,  segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes.  School boards enact policies that parent lobbies, business leaders, and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policy into practice across the U.S.

  1. The age-graded organization is (and has been) the primary vehicle for converting goals and policies into classroom lessons.

Those goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms in those schools responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the overall district goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.

Thus, the role of the individual teacher located in these age-graded classrooms gives  teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can and do decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.

State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers—remember those doors that can be closed—from their bosses. Teachers retain limited autonomy.

No state superintendent of education or official in the state department, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day.

In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state  determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling.”

That “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservationist in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed.


  1. Most major reforms come from outside the schools. These externally-driven reforms stem from larger political, social, and economic problems that policy elites believe schools can ameliorate if not solve. Existing goals, policies, and practiuces change incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms aimed at overhauling schools.

Policy elites, for example, drafted public schools in the late-1950s to make America stronger during the Cold War with the Soviet Union by churning out more scientists and mathematicians. When weak economic growth and stiff economic competition with Japan and Germany occurred during the 1970s, civic and business leaders urged schools to create more “human capital”— academically prepared students who could score higher on international tests and enter the job market prepared for a post-industrial America. In the early decades of the 21st century, having schools become vehicles for reducing societal inequities (e.g., re-segregation of schools in most cities, expanding numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; end tracking in secondary schools) and increasing social justice (e.g., curricula that stress defects in capitalism and how racial and economic oppression operates in the U.S) has been on reformers’ agendas. The history of school reform in 20th century America, then, is a history of policy elites “educationalizing” societal problems and claiming fundamental changes when only incremental ones occurred.

The rhetoric of “fundamental” reform and selective policy adoption did happen but seldom to the degree that reformers in each generation sought for alterations in what teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”

4. In most instances, what happens to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapt the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular addition, or organizational change to the contours of the local age-graded school.

More, faster, and better teaching and learning through technology, for example, began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk in the early 1980s, then locating desktop computers in libraries then setting up separate computer labs and eventually buying laptops for each student. Now in 2020, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers  organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling” embedded in age-graded schools.

5. There are also internally-driven reforms initiated by administrators and teachers. Without fanfare and below media radar, bottom-up governmental, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes have altered many aspects of schooling.

From teacher-run schools to block scheduling of the school day, to teacher-initiated courses, to teachers adapting lessons–changes have happened unnoticed by mainstream media because they are done over time with no drum rolls or press releases. None of these bottom-up changes, however, significantly modified the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

6. Most external and internal reforms occur in schooling largely through incrementalism.

That has been the prevailing pattern of change in public schools, not fundamental change (e.g., shifting from property taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with ones that end the current “grammar of schooling”; replacing teacher-centered with student-centered instruction; ending segregated schools). Such overhauls have been attempted but seldom have stuck in schools to the continual disappointment of fervent reformers. Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with downsized policy versions of the changes they seek.When put into practice, they become incremental replacements (e.g., the new math, new biology, and new physics curricula in the 1960s turn into different textbooks for students).

When fundamental changes in schools do actually occur, more often than not, they come from beyond the schoolhouse door such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools yet for decades political coalitions blocked desegregation plans until the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon the constitutionality of each plan incrementalizing the court decision. And since the 1990s, state and local inaction has led to de facto segregation in most cities and suburbs. Or Katrina, a hurricane that fundamentally altered New Orleans schools drastically has triggered a reconfigured public school system of nearly all charter schools. Yet these charter schools remain age-graded and practice the familiar “grammar of schooling.”

Incrementalism differs. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, classroom lessons that relied wholly on whole-group instruction have shifted slowly to a mix of whole-group, small-group activities, and independent student work. Curricular additions from Advanced Placement courses to ethnic studies to sex education have been added to high school courses. Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. Since the 1990s many urban high schools are around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Standardized testing of students has increased. Even in funding and governing public schools, charter schools and mayoral control of big city school systems have gradually spread since the 1990s across the educational terrain. And do not forget the cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showing up in schools as female teachers wearing jeans instead of dresses, male teachers no longer wearing ties and sports coats, teachers drinking coffee in class, and displaying far more informality in classrooms than in the 1950s.

Many of these incremental changes have no noticeable direction toward a long-term goal. They pop up when societal and governmental pressures from business and civic leaders, taxpayers, parents, and practitioners call for certain changes (e.g., more state tests, altering attendance boundaries,  adding ethnic studies courses to curriculum, increasing 45-minute classes to hour-long ones).

Such small steps, more often than not, do not add up to a fundamental change. A long-term vision of making small changes that will move classrooms, schools, or districts in a clear direction to overhaul the existing structures and activities is rare. It is uncommon because cultural changes in the larger society seldom occur in one fell swoop. Few tectonic plates shift dramatically; movement is in inches and feet.

There are, of course, occasional teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction over a decade. Just as there are schools where once students moved in lockstep progression from one teacher-directed activity to another to schools where students make independent choices, work closely with peers, and see their teachers as coaches. And there are districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments move from rigid top-down policymaking to more decentralized decisions that include principals and teachers in formulating, adopting, and implementing new ideas (e.g., Long Beach Unified School District, California). Incrementalism can be patchy, fragmentary and direction-less or it can be, over time, a collaborative movement inching toward a desired goal.


In moving from goals to policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax-supported public schools in the U.S. for two centuries. American schools and classroom teaching have been fashioned by social, political and organizational factors. Local dependence upon property taxes and the decentralized system of school governance and funding in the past two centuries have accounted for economic and racial inequities in schooling. The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local goals and policies into classroom lessons. Finally, the constant flow of problems in the larger society–including huge gaps in the distribution of wealth and grossly unequal funding of schools–has created patterns in school reform that often get converted into ad hoc incremental changes to improve both schools and society. Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers have to understand these three forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.



Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

16 responses to “From Policy To Practice: Reforming American Schools and Classroom Lessons

  1. Great argument, Larry!
    I often extend the financial argument a bit further, along these lines:
    1) In a typical public school district, around 90% of costs are fixed: debt service, building operations and maintenance, and salaries. That leaves only the last 10% of the budget for all of operations, including curriculum and instruction (often in the range of 2%). Is it any wonder change is so slow?
    2) By contrast, a typical public corporation (not counting startups) usually reports sales, general and administrative costs (SG&A) in the range of 40% to 60% of total budget. Research and Development is usually in the range of 10% to 20%.
    3) A corollary of your point about the political relationship with schools is that it’s rarely true that if a school does a better job, its funding increases. Instead, the factors affecting school funding are largely independent of how well a school is doing. This creates a dizzying fog of incentives for and against change that have little to do with actual school effectiveness. It often appears to me that those involved in school policy have an unspoken assumption that the incentives for schools are like those of the private sector: businesses that do their job better make more money. In the debate over education policy, this private-sector assumption is a misconception, and probably causes damage. It’s one of the many reasons why “running schools like a business” is at least ill-informed, and possibly damaging. Schools are not businesses; they are service delivery organizations.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    The condenced argument you have offered is sound.

    The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local policies into classroom lessons.”

    True enough, but there were/are also more general influences on the persistence of age-graded schools and their calendars. Both are a byproduct of peristent patterns of work and responsibilities for childcare. The summer harvest season is no longer a reason for the a summer break, but “vacation” time while the weather may be cooperative is still a reason that year-round-schools are in short supply. Age-graded cohorts of children require and benefit from having right-sized furniture and instructional materials based on some assumptions about prior learning, what might be addressed next, and how various subjects for instruction in school might be parsed into teachable “chunks.” And those assumptions govern the vast investments in publishing texts and “ancillary” materials.
    I can recall Harry Broudy dwelling on the problems of “mass education,” with some acknowledgment that the movement toward federalized policies was unlikely to change what happens in public schools very much. But that was before the micromanging of NCLB and ESSA, which is rightly dubbed NCLB 2.0, the proliferation of charter schools, and much else.

    • larrycuban

      The historical reasons you cite for persistence of “grammar of schooling” within the age-graded school, Laura, I have thought about but did not include. I want to given them more weight. Thanks.

  3. Hello Larry,

    Like Laura, I think that the condensed argument is sound. I would wonder, however, about a few other underlying drivers of the challenge of moving from policy to practice.

    First, when considering external forces, are you also thinking of the market forces associated with the edtech industry? The “Silicon Valley elites” certainly influence policy and practice regardless of whether they understand teaching and learning. Whether this comes in the form of products or calls for curricular change (i.e. STEM or Computer Science) or in how they directly influence teacher practice through ambassadorships and other promotional avenues, there seems to be a new force driving a lot of classrooms.

    Second, I have been thinking a lot lately about your earlier arguments on policy talk vs practical action. To be specific, I have recently been wrestling with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s concept of “The Homework Gap” to describe the inequity that many students face due to lack of device and high-speed Internet access. From a policy talk perspective, I understand that she coined this term to make the problem concrete to policymakers who may not otherwise understand the need for students to be connected. However, the term itself creates a limited perspective on the broader problem of inequity of learning opportunity. I’m not quite sure where/how this conundrum fits within your argument, but that disconnect between talk and action might be interesting.

    I look forward to learning more.


  4. speduktr

    Looking back over educational policy over the years from my very parochial viewpoint, I can’t see any great need to smooth the transition from policy to practice. A lot of stupid stuff has come down the pike, driven by anything but what could be called “for the children.” The longer it takes for politicians and “thought leaders” to implement their grand plans, the better off we will be. “Disruptive change,” which seems to have driven a lot of recent activity, is a catchy phrase that in most instances should not be part of education policy or practice discussions. It’s not that I don’t see major inequities in the delivery of education. Rather I see little good faith effort to reform the system–someone always seems to be trying to figure out how they can benefit ($$) from policy changes rather than how policy changes could benefit the common good. (Public education should not be creating multi-millionnaires.) Too often, who gets a seat at the table has depended on power dynamics that have little to do with actual expertise in educational policy and practice.

  5. Lindsey

    Dr. Cuban,
    Longstanding admirer of your work here. Thank you for this preview. Here are a few thoughts.

    Part 1, Sec. 2: “Age graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in and of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers… from their bosses.”

    I don’t disagree, but the power of the principal to aid or undermine reform efforts might also be mentioned here. Principals may complacently or actively encourage conservatism and the grammar of schooling to thrive unchecked.

    I am thinking of the negative outcomes of “building based management,” a primary end of ed reform in MA. Districts seem to have different interpretations of the extent of a principal’s power, but in some districts, this power is nearly absolute. One result is clashes between central office administrators charged with administering federal program areas (special education, Title 1) or just working to improve teaching and learning in the district. When building-based management is taken to the extreme, an authoritarian structure can emerge and the principal can “make or break” school culture, efforts at reform and the quality of teaching and learning.

    None of this detracts from your central argument… in fact, I think it enhances the point that teachers really are “gate keepers and de facto policy makers” – for better or worse (for better when some teachers quietly try to subvert the “grammar of schooling” or lessen its impact…).

    Part 2, Section3 – 100% true; please shout this from the roof tops! It is easy for policy elites to place the responsibility for these changes on the school’s doorstep; the decentralization of the system, the under-professionalization of those who work in the system and the emotional intensity discussions about inequality that involve children make it less likely that school/district leaders can push back or even engage in honest dialogue about the role of schooling vs. the role of larger societal change in any meaningful way.

    Sec 4. Agreed. The technology example is a good one, and I would also include PBIS and SEL “programs” as other examples; these are among the latest buzzwords and are generating $$$ for educational software companies, consultants, etc.

    Sec 6. Again, I think the role of the principal or building leader should be mentioned here.

    Conclusion: “In moving from policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax supported public schools in the US for two centuries…” Yes, but other than incremental, underground meaningful change, it seems like we continue to regress to a lackluster mean (because of the constraints of the grammar of schooling among the other reasons you describe).

  6. speduktr

    “To understand the journey of federal, state, and district policies into schools and classrooms, policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers have to understand these three forces before meaningful and substantive changes in what teachers teach and students learn can occur.”

    Your final statement implies that the system needs “meaningful and substantive change.” I am hearing a call to understand how to attempt a major overhaul in practice in short order in a system that is not set up for rapid change. What concerns me is a kind of tacit implication that the system is more a barrier to needed change rather than a protection against unnecessary instability. I would contend that most changes have occurred the same way cultural change happens in the larger society–slowly and incrementally. When rapid and disruptive, large scale change has occurred, the pressure for reform has grown from grassroots efforts not top down mandates. Successful change needs “buy-in” by those who are most affected by it,…which takes time. Rapid, disruptive change has a cost that policy makers may dismiss or downplay for “the greater good” they envision. In some cases, paying that cost is necessary, but the ones it will benefit are often the ones who will initially pay most dearly.

    • larrycuban

      I have changed the language in that last sentence of mine that you quote. You are correct that I slipped into reform-driven language myself. Thank you.

  7. First-time caller, long-time reader. Curious to hear if you go into race specifically? The overall argument came across as “colorblind” in my initial (albeit quick) read. Discussing the inequities of property tax-based funding without highlighting red-lining, white flight, or private schools, for example, would be problematic, as race is the driver of those influential changes. Not sure that race or racism is mentioned in this brief. Just a thought! Hope it helps.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Nate. Yes, race, ethnicity, and class are included in the distilled argument. More examples might have nailed that point down.

  8. Theodore Lobman

    I like the content you presented, as well, and hope you address some of these social (cultural) forces, in particular, that are underneath instability and mistrust in the larger society. Some examples.

    Accelerating social change (Future Shock). Weakened authorities, norms, social trust. Ideological and political polarization. Growing ability of factions to use social media to form and recruit members.

    Two working parents, long commutes, divorce affecting children’s time with parents. Ascendance of nurturing-parent themes (e.g. self-esteem, lower tolerance for and broader definitions of risk to children and lower thresholds for perceiving risk.)

    Student time on the internet vs. in face-to-face play. Impact of social media. Reduction of unsupervised play time.

    Broadening public awareness of social and economic conditions and their effect on economic opportunity, perceived fairness. Conflict between personal and social responsibility perspectives.

    Ability of factions to use social media to form and recruit members. Growing number and competition of media outlets to attract viewers and public demand for emotional content in news.

    • larrycuban

      What can I say. Ted? If I had another lifetime, I might be able to take on the many fine points you make about what forces influence public schools. But being an incrementalist means I will carve out something important that I can do in the next few years. Ergo the distilled argument that I made in the post. I wonder of all the forces that you list, which two would you say have the most influence? Thanks for the comment.

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