Why Do U.S. Schools Do What They Do? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I offered the short rather than long answer to the above question. U.S. public schools, a national but decentalized system with 50 states and territories operating separate school organizations, still end up following similar policies in nearly identical organizations in 13,000-plus districts across the country.

Although a decentralized system, U.S. schools in Montana and Massachusetts, the Carolinas and California, and Alabama and Arizona, use as its primary organizational unit the age-graded school (e.g., K-6, K-8, middle school and high school). It is the one and only form of organizing schools common to rural, suburban, and urban districts across the nation.

Although decentralized, the age-graded school organization nonetheless imposes a strong commonality across American city, county, and state schools.

Part 1 covered two factors, that is, the dispersed system of U.S. schooling and the age-graded organization with its “grammar of schooling” that makes public schools so familiar to one another across space (different states and districts)–and across time (schools decades ago and now).

And there is a third important factor that I take up here.

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. Powerful as these externally-driven reforms are, existing goals, policies, and practices change slowly and incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms.

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., end re-segregation of schools in most cities, expand numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; abolish tracking in secondary schools) and increase social justice 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 in schools when only incremental ones occurred.

The rhetoric of “fundamental” seldom matched aspirations of reformers in each generation who sought alterations in what and how teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”

In most instances, what happened to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapted the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular additions, or organizational changes 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 2021, media centers (once libraries) have rows of computers while classrooms have carts with 25-30 tablet computers stacked and ready for student use.

Yet the dominant ways teachers  organize their classes, arrange activities, and teach 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.

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 often unnoticed by mainstream media because they occur 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.”

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 income and sales taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with non-graded ones; 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 each generation of fervent reformers.

Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with shrunken 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 sets of 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 thereby incrementalizing the high court’s 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, created 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 both scope and pace. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, for example, 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 curricula.

Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. 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. Since then many urban high schools are smaller enrolling around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Moreover, standardized testing of students has increased. These are only a few of the organizational changes in schools that have occurred over the past quarter-century.

And do not forget how larger cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showed up in schools. 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 with students 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, initiating and abolishing dress codes, 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 rather than yards.

There are, of course, individual teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction on their lessons over a decade. Just as there are individual 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 some districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments, moved 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 cultures into goals and policies and then 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, but again, incremental changes in both schools and society.

Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers, at the minimum, have to understand these three historically-driven forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.


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8 responses to “Why Do U.S. Schools Do What They Do? (Part 2)

  1. Joe Nathan

    Have you talked with parents and community members pushing for greater diversity of faculty? Have you talked with educators who helped introduce the chartered public school idea (you have, cause I’m one of them but apparently you choose to ignore the major role of educators in the nation’s first charter law).

    What is the responsibility of people such as yourself – who have dominated education departments of universities in maintaining the existing structure? How many grants and consulting contracts came to Stanford? (Millions)

    Why not turn your blog over to people from the National Parents Union, or the Freedom Coalition, or Memphis Lift, or…. You and your readers might hear something quite different and “more authentic.”

  2. Joe Nathan

    Larry, that is a classic, non-response, response. When was the last time you visited a highly effective rural or urban district or chartered public school…the kind of school who helps youngsters out of poverty?

    • larrycuban

      Please read the two case studies of high schools I visited in Oakland and San Fernando that are published in Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools (2020).

      • Joe Nathan

        Thx for the suggestion. Are either of the case studies available on line? At this point, I’m giving away rather than purchasing books.

  3. Pingback: Marrying freedom and funding: How districts can become education’s new inventors - Christensen Institute : Christensen Institute

  4. I’ve returned to your Hugging the Middle and “teacher-centered progressivism” thesis many times. What I’m wondering more than if teachers use a blend of methods, which they clearly do, is whether instruction tends to begin with whole class teaching by a teacher at the front of the room (the teacher-centered) before slowly making way for so-called student-centered activities such as independent practice, group work, and open ended problem solving? The question is important to me because the order of instruction – aka the “gradual release” model or “I do, we do, you do” – differs substantially from “You do, I help”, although both can be said to be a “hybrid” of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction.

    • larrycuban

      Now that is a fine distinction that you make. It is one I have not considered before when discussing “hybrids.”. After thinking about whether there is (or not) a sequence, as you suggest, I am uncertain. Most of my research has been of the snapshot kind–come into a classroom, report on what I see in a few lessons, and exit. What you are asking about is a very worthwhile line of research that requires longer stints in observing sequences of lessons among a larger sample of teachers. I wish someone would follow up on your suggestion. I cannot.

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