Hope and the History of School Reform

Nine years ago I wrote this post after meeting with a group of graduate students working on their Masters in Business Administration. Many had taught for a few years through Teach for America and were eager to apply their knowledge and skills learned in the MBA program to low-performing schools where most students were of color.

So why re-post this piece? As a historian of school reform I hear often from readers, former students, and teachers that my recounting of failed reforms and disappointing results after efforts to transform schooling lead to despair if not cynicism about the entire landscape of school improvement. And that is what I have been hearing recently from some readers. So I decided to re-publish this piece.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.

Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.

I learned that:

*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/)

* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/)

* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have (Seehttps://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/does- reforming-u-s-schools-soften-or-harden-inequalities-in-wealth-and-health/

* I learned that both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/how-do-teachers-teach-2/ )

I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.

After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system to make organizational and instructional changes. Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”

I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.

The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit trade-offs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however,  are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.

The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered  the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.

So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?

Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that her time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.

What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.


A reader in 2011 asked me what I meant by that next-to-last sentence: ”Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important ‘but’–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved.”

Here is what I replied then and still agree with nine years later:

Many things in life we do because we believe that they are worthwhile ventures. We hope we will succeed (and the measures and meaning of success vary by the person, cultural norms, etc.) but we do not know whether we will or not. We take a risk. Getting married. Having children. Biking across the country.

I believe teaching is like that. We invest ourselves in the act of teaching every day in the hope that we will succeed with all of our students but, after years of experience, we come to know two things: first, that success is measured in as many different ways as the students we have and, second, that in more cases than we would like to remember, success–however defined and measured–eludes us with some students. Knowing both “truths” in our head and heart does not mean that we stop teaching. The act of teaching someone else, of helping another person learn something of importance, is so worthwhile in of itself that even when success is doubtful or perhaps impossible, the act remains worth doing. That is what I meant.


1 Comment

Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

One response to “Hope and the History of School Reform

  1. Paul Naso

    Please continue to write about the failures of school reform. If they bring about cynicism or a sense of defeat, it may be that the reader presumes that an ideal and stable condition of schools is attainable. What matters is how we interact with those stories, or, perhaps more important, how those stories help us make sense of and learn from our own inevitable failures. Despite scores of discreet teacher competencies we deem important, I fret that too little attention is given to helping people in schools develop what Karl Weick, an organizational theorist at the University of Michigan, refers to as a “fascination with failure.” In other words, I’m quite fascinated with the failure of schools of education and school districts to do that.

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