Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.

[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students


[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at:

Survey was completed October 2021.


Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use

2 responses to “Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Thanks for the informative report. Missing, I think, is the influence of venture capital in the edtech industry.

    For example, a February 14, 2021 report from EdSurge Biz is all about a deluge of venture capital pouring into the edtech industry.

    In the span of only two days, three transactions for US edtech companies totaled over $1 billion.

    One example of big deals (and high hopes) is Renaissance’s $650 million acquisition of Nearpod.

    Renaissance enables one-click use of ClassLink and Clever. More than 13,000 schools use the Renaissance performance tracking dashboards assembled as “myIGDIs“ (Individual Growth & Development Indicators) for early childhood. The indicators are displayed in colorful dashboards. These displays show a “kindergarten readiness” score for early literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional development.

    Renaissance also markets “Star” assessments with a claim that these are “highly predictive of performance on state and other high-stakes tests. There are Star tests for Early Literacy K-3; Literacy growth, K–12; Math for grades 1 to 12; Star elementary school “Curriculum-based tests” in reading and math; Bilingual tests for reading, math, and early literacy for emerging bilingual students… and more (custom tests).

    Renaissance’s acquisition of the Nearpod platform provides a way for teachers to upload and distribute digital lessons in the form of interactive slide decks. The platform also tracks student progress and interactions with the materials.

    Nearpod has since expanded the platform with features that let teachers create quizzes, offer virtual reality content for digital field trips, and embed mini-games into lessons. Nearpod also has a library of over 15,000 pre-made lessons from third-party providers including Amplify, Desmos, iCivics and Teaching Tolerance.

    In 2020, an estimated 19.5 million lessons were taught on Nearpod, marking a six-fold increase from the previous year, according to its CEO Pep Carrera. “The pandemic really accelerated the need for teachers to find ways to continue doing things that were once easily done in classrooms,” he said in an interview. Today, the platform is used by 75 percent of all U.S. public school districts. Nearpod offers some of its content and tools for free but it also sells licenses to individual teachers, schools and districts.

    “Other deals HOBSONS SPLIT AND SOLD: Hobsons, a provider of college planning, readiness and enrollment tools since 1974, will be broken up and sold. PowerSchool will be acquiring its college and career-planning tools, Naviance and Intersect; EAB will purchase the student engagement service, Starfish. These two are expected to net Hobson’s owner $410 million.

    CODECADEMY COMEBACK: Long before coding boot camps were a thing, there were startups like Codecademy, web-based tools to teach programming. Now, a decade after it launched, the New York-based company continues to grow, selling to colleges and companies and—perhaps most importantly—achieving profitability. That long, steady growth has been rewarded with a $40 million investment led by Owl Ventures”

    Kahoot, the Norweigian provider of a game-based learning platform, has acquired, a Finnish developer of digital whiteboard tools for teachers and students, in a deal worth up to $12 million.

    Photomath, a San Francisco-based developer of a math problem-solving app, has raised $23 million in a Series B round led by Menlo Ventures, and joined by GSV Ventures, Learn Capital, Cherubic Ventures and Goodwater Capital.

    Praxis Labs, a New York-based provider of virtual-reality educational programs for workplaces, has raised $3.2 million in a seed round led by SoftBank’s OB Opportunity Fund, and joined by Norwest Venture Partners, Emerson Collective, Ulu Ventures, Precursor Ventures and Firework VC.”

    Money drives all of these ventures. Most are designed to eliminate or reduce the need for face-to-face deliberations about education, From early childhood to college readiness and planning, these investments are “making history” and have little use for schools and grade levels except as profit centers.

    • larrycuban

      Again, Laura, thank you for adding important information about the influence of venture capital on the edtech industry. I am glad you keep up with that side of the industry. I find it very helpful.

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