How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over Decades (Part 1)

Six years ago, I posted this two-part series about changes in my thinking about school reform. It generated many comments from readers. I return to these posts because I want to see if there have been further changes in my thinking about the never-ending deluge of school reform particularly after the spread of “personalized learning” initiatives have become ubiquitous.  I offer it again since I have many new followers that may not have seen these earlier posts.

Reflections on my thinking about school reform came with a request from colleague Richard Elmore who asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011). I have divided the piece into two parts. Part 1 follows. 


I used to think that public schools were vehicles for reforming society. And now I think that while good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in individual children and youth, schools are (and have been) ineffectual in altering social inequalities.

I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while working toward making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) through the early 1960s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve or unrealistic, I refuse to do so because that passionate idealism, that innocence, about the complex and conflicted roles that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to the long days I worked as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night toward a masters degree in history.

That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 (I arrived on the day of the civil rights March on Washington) to teach returned Peace Corps volunteers how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities. I taught history to students in two high schools. I worked in programs that trained energetic young teachers to work in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.

I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during the 1960s. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the early 1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms I and others had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.

Since the early 1970s, a succession of superintendents and elected school boards have descended upon the D.C. public schools determined to fundamentally change that benighted district. Even after reforms aimed at the governance, curriculum, instruction, and organization of schools were adopted, even after the glories of parental choice, charter schools, and market competition have been championed as cure-alls for urban district ills—after decades of unrelenting geysers of reforms, schooling in D.C.—now under mayoral control–and most other urban districts remain educational disaster zones and a blight on a democratic society.

After leaving D.C., my work as a superintendent, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform and teaching led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent white suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), San Ramon Valley (CA), Montgomery County (MD) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA; Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, CA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get reprimanded, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where large numbers of poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being shut down because they are on federal and state lists of failing schools. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but staying there is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S., schools cannot remedy national economic, social, and political problems or dissolve persistent inequities. Schools in these tiers cannot be the vanguard for social reform—ever. Public schools, I concluded, are (and have been) institutions for maintaining social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth even in the lowest tier of schools.

The irony, of course, is that many current policymakers from President Obama through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. In President Obama’s 2010 State of the union speech, for example, he said, “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

So nearly a half-century of experience in schools and the sustained research I have done have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric. Both my experience and research have changed my mind about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform—even from a President I admire. Yet, I must confess that in my heart, I still believe that content-smart and classroom-smart teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in their students’ lives even if they cannot cure societal ills.



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

19 responses to “How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over Decades (Part 1)

  1. Matt Renwick

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. While I agree that societal reform initiated by schools might be a pipe dream, I do see the potential for schools to positively influence their local communities. But we cannot replicate this in every community school – there is no “program” to install – because every culture is unique.

    • Daniel Drmacich

      Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Larry. You’re hopefully “making America think again,” about our values, visions, goals, commitments and willingness to take action to change our public education system. I seem to recall that Tyler’s analysis in “The Eight Year Study” of Dewey Progressive Schools, indicated that its student graduates performed much more effectively as active citizens, when compared to traditional school graduates. Does that indicate that there’s the potential for societal change
      through school organizational, curricular, assessment and pedagogical progressive reform? I think so, but only if public schools are given the opportunity to be free of high-stakes standardized testing and narrow curricular requirements, like Dewey progressive schools were. In Diane Ravitch’s recent blog, Andrea Gabor’s piece on “The Demand for a New Kind of Civics,” gives some hope for societal change. What if one aspect of the Civics “performance-based assessment” was for individual and/or small groups of students to engage in a societal “change agent” project & have their process assessed by teachers & local community activists? That kind of learning experience may indeed result in more progressive societal development.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to comment. Here is a “yes, but” response. Tyler’s evaluation did show relationship, as you say, but even civic engagement does not necessarily mean “societal change.” I would like to think so, however, as you suggest but the political and socioeconomic structures require far more of a political movement outside of the schools than graduates voting, sitting on juries, joining community groups, etc.

    • Daniel Drmacich

      Larry, In your response to me regarding Tyler’s “8 Year Study,” you state that “societal reform” will take much more than active participation as voters, serving on juries or joining community groups,” & that it will take an outside political movement to really generate the changes we desire. The key variable for societal change generated through school reform may be the degree of curricular emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem-solving and their application to “real world” issues. Can you imagine thousands of graduates leaving high schools with these skills and participating as voters, jurors and community organization members? We might, then, begin to see some substantive societal reform. However, to convince the education policy-makers of the need for this change, may indeed take political movements, locally & nationally.

  2. Jim Masters

    Thank you for so clearly framing (Parts 1 and 2) where my thinking has arrived after 35 years of service as an educator. The continuing back and forth between policymakers, practitioners, and those who would exploit educational processes and resources for their own ends, highlights the critical nature of the practitioner’s perspective.

    One of the difficulties I believe we face, in responding to those demanding quantified evidence to justify ongoing support, nests in the reality that our “results” emerge over time and are uniquely context specific. It is difficult to time stamp proof of being successfully educated.

    While, the sincere “Thank you” of a former student remains a significant moment in a career spent in service to others, such events are limited in their ability to attract the talent, commitment, and resources needed to accommodate diverse student needs and societal expectations. Again, thank you for giving voice to the realities of planning to change the world.

  3. At base our schooling system (and I happen to live in South Africa, but it could be anywhere) is designed to reproduce the inequalities in society. We have tiered systems for a reason, and that is making it easier to reproduce the inequalities of class, race or gender. I began my teaching career teaching in a squatter camp, with irregular salary and few teaching resources. As a young teacher full of energy and ideas, and dreams of making a difference, I embraced new methods, new ideas, and the notion of change through education.

    I now teach in an elite school which is well resourced and attended by students who will undoubtedly go out and live lives of significance and influence. I am still full of energy, and still embrace new methods even though I am a few years from enforced retirement. But I no longer believe that education can change society. And I certainly do not believe that new methods will accomplish miracles. Teachers certainly change individual lives, but there is no miracle method out there, there is only caring, being present, and being enthusiastic.

    The answers to inequality are political, I fear. Occam’s razor. To change society, you actually have to go out there and change society!

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  6. I think that education has suffered from a paucity of deeper thought. Take, for instance personalized/individualized curricula. These were mostly honest attempts to look at doing things differently in the hope of doing things better, but all failed to ask the question: who is the best person to individualize or personalize the education of a student? I humbly submit that that person is the student him- or herself.

    We should have been teaching students all along how to educate themselves, given the resources provided. In this scenario, teachers provide a generic structure (assignments, standards, etc.) and then students are coached as to how to bring their effort into agreement with their own goals. This is how we train athletes, by the way. Serious athletes, in any case.

    The goal of an education should be the capacity of a person to educate themselves and I suggest we have been doing this haphazardly, hoping that immersing students in the processes will educate them as to the processes. This, I consider, is somewhat of an insult to the autonomy of the students.

  7. Roy Turrentine

    I went to this site since Diane Ravitch put a link on her site. I am sure you read her site and are familiar with the often repeated suggestion that the difference between the three types of schools you note is socio-economic. Financial stability breeds social stability creates good performing students is the common mantra you read. I wonder why you did not comment on this.

    I also note that you did not mention rural schools, an omission that stuck out in my mind since I chose a rural location in which I might live and teach some 35 years ago. Like you, I am suspicious of utopian vision. How often the utopian becomes the Reign of Terror, be it Pol Pot, Robespierre, or Hitler (perhaps we are trained not to think of the NAZIs as utopian thinkers, but we could argue a bit). Still, we try to build a perfect cabinet, because a poor attempt will prove unusable.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for the question, Ray, and your comment. I did mention socioeconomic status in introducing the three tiers and in describing the third tier. Perhaps I could have made the point more strongly than I did. The omission of rural schools that are under-funded and enroll many poor families is missing from my description. Thank you for making it explicit.

  8. jim2812

    This utopian thinker and retired school teacher tried to see what is and seek a vision of a better tomorrow. And, I am still seeking but now retired.

    For the most part I’m stuck having read Rothstein’s book Color of Law with a vision of tomorrow addressing the isolation and segregation in our society due to government policies that segregated our neighborhoods and our neighborhood schools as a byproduct.

    Rothstein points out in his book, that after World War II addressing the housing crisis of the day the government funded programs such as GI Bill and FHA that at the same time supported relining and segregated suburbia.

    Our segregated public schools of today are reflection of our segregated housing, housing financed by the government after World War II that by policy left non-whites behind.

    Both racial and economic segregation continue today in my City of Oakland. The enrolled public school population of Oakland is economically segregated with the majority of public school enrollment of brown and black students isolated in Oakland Schools with the majority of Oakland public schools over 70% on free and reduced lunch program, Federal measure of poverty.

    Oakland has plurality of Hispanic enrollment with black students next largest enrollment and white students around 10%. But, the few white students attend a few Oakland public schools and those public schools enrolling whites have 30% or less free and reduced price lunch program at the school.

    If it had a political will the Oakland Public Schools could pass policies to reduce the economic class based isolation. Instead, its School Board passes policies promoting two types of choice policies. Parents compete for enrolling their students in their choice of all Oakland public schools. Second type of choice the Board promotes is the choice of enrolling in charter schools. The governing School Boards have been friendly to charter school choice expansion over the years. However, the most segregated schools when Oakland public and charter schools enrollments are compared are privately managed Oakland charter schools in terms of racially and economically

    My utopian focus is not the school or the individual student but a government system of public education in Oakland that can do better and have policies that reduce the racial and economic segregation of the Oakland Public Schools some day.

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