School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 4)

Every school reform is a solution to a problem. How a problem is identified (e.g., unilaterally, multilaterally) and who does the framing of it (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, parents), of course, matters. The cartoonish superintendent (or elected official) sees the problem in test scores declining the longer students are in school. His solution: allow 3 year-old toddlers to start school.

Poking fun at the screwy logic of this solution to an identifiable and well-known problem is easy to do. What’s harder is to figure out amid the never-ending flood of school reforms past and present, why some are adopted by districts but stayed mired in a protected corner of the system. And other adopted reforms spread to all schools in a district.

District officials are on the look out constantly for reforms that solve problems they face in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. But these niche-based adopted programs (e.g., charters, Montessori schools, problem-based learning, competency-based learning, International Baccalaureate) persist over time, are admired in what they do–which is why districts embrace them–yet remain marginal to what other schools in the district do daily. It is puzzling.

Before offering my explanation for why this situation is common nationally, past and present, I want to take a crack at the common myth (neither my first nor last time) that schools never change or its companion fairy tale that schools mightily resist change.

Since the middle of 19th century, school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction have changed in response to external pressures to alter what is done daily. Here are a few examples:

*Shift from the rural one-room schoolhouses to urban age-graded grammar schools in the 19th and 20th centuries..

*Increased state and federal funding of schools beginning in the 20th century.

*From “old” to “new” curricula every decade or so.

*Dumping bolted-down desks and replacing them with movable ones by mid-20th century

*Less whole-group teaching and more small-group classwork and individualized instruction in elementary school classrooms beginning in early decades of 20th century.

*Moving from privately sponsored late-19th century kindergartens to publicly subsidized ones throughout 20th century.

*Establishing comprehensive junior and senior high schools in rural, urban and suburban districts by mid-20th century.

*Creating vocational schools and courses of studies by mid-20th century.

*Since the mid-20th century, adding new personnel to schools such as counselors, special education staff, teacher aides.

*From old technologies of showing films, running videos on classroom monitors, film strip projectors, slate blackboards to interactive white boards and personal computers. Since the early 1990s, nearly all students and teachers now have access to, and use of, laptops, tablets, and desktop computer in classrooms.

I could list many more but these examples should clearly establish that districts, schools, and classrooms have slowly and steadily adopted reforms aimed at improving governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction since tax-supported public schools came into existence. In each instance, external reformers in league with educators defined a problem that had to be solved in governing, funding, organizing, and determining content and pedagogy in schools. Their solutions were a particular set of reforms.

Myth that it is, for anyone in authority to claim today that schools seldom change or actively resist change in the current climate of frontal attacks on facts and truth can be called out for spreading disinformation. Whether these changes improved desired student outcomes is an entirely different (and important) question.

Although the generic accusation that schools do not change remains a convenient fairy tale for disgruntled reformers, I still have to explain why school systems past and present have adopted certain admired reforms that inhabit nooks and crannies of the district organization yet fail to spread to the rest of the system. The rest of the post offers a multi-part explanation for this puzzling phenomenon.


  1. School districts are complex, open, and adaptive systems that are politically vulnerable to external forces. Such systems adopt new ideas and practices to defuse criticism, maintain funding, and keep the organization politically stable with its stakeholders (e.g. parents, school staffs, district office administrators, school board, taxpayers and voters). See here, here, and here for more about complex, open systems .

Simply listing the stakeholders in a school district suggests the intertwined human relationships, the many moving parts in a school district, the necessity of system leaders to be politically astute, and the loose connections between what parents and school boards want and what teachers and students actually do in classrooms. The word “complexity” often hides the unpredictability inherent in the larger environment (e.g., natural disasters, changes in political and organizational leadership, economic recessions) and periodic external pressures for change as conditions change (e.g., World War II, competition with Soviet Union during Cold War) and one generation of educators and parents ages while another prepares to replace it.

Niche reforms do not spread easily in a complex system where leaders cope with frequent unpredictability, massage varied constituencies, and are uncertain about consequences of disturbing existing relationships among participants.

2. At least three conditions have to exist or be put into place for a district to adopt an innovation and then spread throughout the system. First, policymakers, administrators, or teachers define a problem they believe they have and adopt a solution that is consistent with prevailing norms. Second, there exists an active political coalition of those outside the system in support of the reform. Third, a system infrastructure to help both administrators and teachers implement the reform (e.g., district staff development, access to experts, released time, instructional materials available, district office support) is built and put into place.

Look at the above list of reforms that were once niche reforms and, in time, spread through districts. Educating five year-olds, for example, was a late-19th century solution to the problem of educating very young children in poor, immigrant neighborhoods who went unsupervised. As the economy grew and employers needed more workers during and after World War II, more women, including mothers, were hired. Child care then (and now) became a national imperative and kindergartens were added to the existing organization of the age-graded elementary school.

The kindergarten spread throughout public schools as a solution to societal problems. It was consistent with the norms of taking children from an early age and having students traverse the grades until they graduated. Moreover, kindergarten summoned enormous political support from policymakers, employers, many working fathers and mothers, and educators. And gradually, an infrastructure of college certification for early childhood practitioners, district staff development, and curriculum materials were put into place (see here and here).

3. Niche reforms reduce conflict over competing ideologies. The history of school reform has been an ongoing political struggle between rival views of how best to teach and how children best learn. A short-hand and distilled version of each ideological camp would be child-centered and subject-centered. The former have been labeled “progressives” for decades and the latter have been called “traditionalist” or “conservative.” Hybrids of both have also emerged over the years.

Today, instances of each ideology are on display in school systems. A subject-centered reform such as Advanced Placement courses went from a niche reform in middle- and upper-middle income high schools from the 1960s to the 1990s until it spread to largely low-income high schools over the past two decades. Advanced Placement courses coincided not only with teacher norms of sorting students by achievement but also merged with the majority beliefs of parents that schools must prepare students for college and career.

Now consider the progressive reform of problem-based learning pushed by many parents in elementary schools where students collaboratively work on projects that they defined and put together. To avoid system-wide conflict over limited resources going to a district-wide reform and side-stepping divisive splits among parents and teachers over whether this progressive approach is better than the traditional subject-centered one in general use across a district, school boards and superintendent adopt this child-centered reform and place it in particular schools where both teachers and parents supported this approach to teaching and learning. Conflict avoided.

Politically, then, school systems have the discretion to place a reform in a protected niche or kick-start its spread throughout the district. Although the struggle between these competing ways of seeing teaching and learning have been part of the history of schooling for over a century, the center of gravity in nearly all districts for these decades has been subject-centered or “traditional” schooling. Social beliefs of most Americans–but hardly all–has been the concept of a “real school.” A “real school” is an organization that vests authority in the teacher and principal, establishes policies for academic and student behavior, offers an age-graded curriculum, assigns work to students weekly, administers tests, and grades individual students’ work. Some historians describe such organizations as containing a “grammar of schooling.” Historians and policymakers recognize such age-graded schools with their “grammar of schooling” as the mainstream way of schooling children and youth for the past century.

So when parents and teachers approach district officials for a new program that has all the earmarks of a child-centered approach, the response of those officials is often to park it on the periphery of the district in a number of classrooms or a school or two.


So this tripartite explanation offers an answer to the puzzle of why some reforms do not get adopted and how some persistent and admired ones move into protected niches within the system but remain peripheral to the mainstream form of schooling. The explanation also shows how a few reforms eventually spread from their nooks to the entire system.

Comments appreciated.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

15 responses to “School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 4)

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for re-blogging series, David.

      • John Miller

        Larry, I have followed and so admired your caring about and analysis of our public schools for years. You are a gift to many of us trying to “make schools work.”
        Over the last several years I’ve wondered what a “Larry Cuban School” would look like and how it would function. Many of us in the field need to actualize (from your stories and insights) the next steps we must focus on to honor your work and to implement many of your perspectives on how our schools might develop into 2020. What would a Cuban School look like and how would it function?

        I raise this issue for Diane Ravitch and many others are so good at finding faults in public education, yet fail to offer fresh designs for better schools. Criticism is easy, plans and practices for the future need your thinking and guidance.
        Looking forward to your guidance (and encouragement) on how would you build schools for the next years.
        Thank you for suggesting what a Cuban School might look like.
        Thank you,

      • larrycuban

        Thank you, John, for your comment. I appreciated your kind words. In my writings over the decades, including this blog, I have said repeatedly–yes, like a Johnny-one-note,that no one design of a school could meet the varied abilities, interests, and motivations of students, be they in urban ghettos or affluent enclaves. Variation among students (and teachers in their expertise), the conflicting values Americans have about how best to teach and learn, the multiple goals for tax-supported public schools and the nature of funding in the U.S.’s decentralized system of governance adds up–at least to me–to a conclusion that there is no one best kind of schooling or design.

        In a book I wrote near 20 years ago called Why Is It So Hard To Get Good Schools? I proposed three criteria to be used by students, parents, taxpayers, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to judge whether a school was “good.”

        1.Are parents, staff, and students satisfied with what occurs in the school?
        2.Is the school achieving the explicit goals that it has set for itself?
        3.Are democratic behaviors, values, and attitudes–however defined–evident in the students?

        There are many designs of “good” schools that could meet these criteria. So, John, there is no Larry Cuban school in my back pocket. Over the decades, I have seen many schools with varied designs meet these criteria. Thanks, again, for your comment.

      • John Miller

        Thanks for your feedback, Larry, about the need for a range of “good” school designs. The three criteria you mentioned are most essential as guides as we move our school building efforts forward!
        What I so value in reading your perspectives and reviews is how you encourage me to reflect on and renew my thinking about school development ahead. Keep writing!

  1. Educating Human Potential

    While parents, educators and policymakers continue to maintain the “grammar of schooling” each year it appears school’s relevance and effectiveness in preparing young people for their future is declining. As a strong advocate and practitioner of Montessori education, and have worked with thousands of students with over five hundred middle school graduates, my anecdotal evidence of their preparedness is undeniable. We can no longer park this child-centred approach, “on the periphery of the district in a number of classrooms or a school or two.” And offer it to many more families and students throughout the US and globally.

  2. Educating Human Potential

    Reblogged this on Educating Human Potential and commented:
    Montessori’s growth is somewhat complicated but for it to spread now, it needs to be more recognized and included in teaching degrees everywhere so that more educators understand its approach.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your comments on Montessori, Margaret. There are many reasons why Montessori public schools remain peripheral to regular schooling. You certainly have identified a few;

  3. Reblogged this on Thinking Education and commented:
    Dr. A.S. Lillard provides a thoughtful review of the challenges specific to Montessori education being more fully embraced in her article for Educational Psychology: Shunned and Admired: Montessori, Self-Determination, and a Case for Radical School Reform, specifically her chapter on Challenges: Montessori’s Incommensurability with Common School Culture. How do we move from tinkering to ‘radical reform’? Thank you for contributing to our understanding of the challenges and possibilities.

  4. I’ve re-read this 4-parter a few times. Excellent!

    You write “I could list many more but these examples should clearly establish that districts, schools, and classrooms have slowly and steadily adopted reforms.”

    Can you direct me to a such a list…of more? Particularly “teacher behavior changes.”

    Above, I loosely see 3 types.

    1. Two examples of actual teacher behavior change – to small groups, and curric “every 10 years or so.”
    2. “Spend more.” Create “free” grade K. Just like 2020: create free pre-K, or Bernie’s free college. Or: add aides.
    3. Change to teacher “conditions” – no filmstrips, desks that move, school type/specialization.

    • larrycuban

      Mike, thanks for comment and questions. In How Teachers Taught (1993)–the sub-title of the book is “Constancy and Change in American Classrooms,” I point out the many small changes that teachers have made over the past century. Those small changes often go unnoticed–see chapters 8 and 9.Keep in mind, Mike, that the ways schools and districts are organized and operated. The school board and district offices expect policies to get put into practice in schools and classrooms. That does not necessarily occur in those places. The loose coupling between policy and practice is built into the system which means that the changes teachers make in their daily routines, the content they teach, and how they respond to top-down innovations (as opposed to what they learn from peers) often go unreported. A new school or reading program get noticed–when teachers alter their seating arrangements or enhance lesson plans or try out a new digital device–such changes go unreported. Few researchers look at classroom practice over time. Few teachers write about the changes they have made in their classrooms over their career. The stuff of change is out there, but unreported.

  5. And: one copy of HTT just ordered on Amazon, $9.45 with free shipping. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Larry Cuban on School Reform – EDU 250/ EDRD 750

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