Targets of U.S. School Reform: Teachers, Schools, Districts, States, and Nation

“History doesn’t teach lessons, historians do.”  Because historians interpret the past they often disagree, even revise, the meaning of events from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to school reform.

What historians can do is show that over time constant change occurs. As a wise ancient Greek said: you cannot step into the same river twice. Thus, the past differs from the present even when they seem so similar. Consider, for example, U.S. involvement in Vietnam a half-century ago and Afghanistan since 2001.  Or “scientific management” dominating school reformers’ vocabulary and action in the early 1900s and the present pervasive audit culture of test-driven accountability over a century later. Historians can show the complexity of human action in the past and offer alternative perspectives that can inform current policy making but they cannot give policymakers specific guidelines.

With that in mind, I turn to the current conventional wisdom among school reformers that focusing on the state and district are the best units for engineering change in schools and classrooms.  In examining the actions of past generations of school reformers, however,  it becomes clear that where change must occur has shifted time and again from the smallest unit–the teacher in the classroom–to the school, the district, the state, and nation. As political, economic, and social changes occurred in the U.S., previous generations of reformers skipped back and forth among these units of change as to which would best produce the changes they sought.

For example, in the early 1900s, few, if any, school reformers thought of the state or nation as the unit of reform. They saw the district and individual school as appropriate levers for change. A century later, however, with No Child Left Behind, test-driven accountability rules, Race to The Top incentive funds, and Common Core standards in math and reading adopted by nearly all the states– many policymakers see both the state and nation as the dominant units for reforming schools.

Or consider the era of “scientific management” in the years before and after World War I  when efficiency-minded experts from academia studied individual teachers, school principals, and district superintendents to see how well they were managing classrooms, schools, and districts. In these years, reformers introduced rating scales for teacher lessons and schools while also creating district-wide achievement tests for students. The focus was on schools and classrooms as units of change that would eventually transform the entire district’s manner of schooling children and youth.

Among contemporary reformers, there still remains a deep interest in reforming how teachers are evaluated and paid including the use of students’ test scores. Moreover, many reformers pushing “professional learning communities” and “professional development” see individual teachers and schools as appropriate units of change. Current reforms, then, mirror an earlier period of intense focus on individual teacher and administrator actions as ways of improving the entire district.

Times change and reform passions shift. Consider that school reformers in the 1960s and 1970s were hostile to districts, especially in cities. They saw large districts as mismanaged and bureaucratically constipated, even pathological entities, that could not reform schools and classrooms. Both southern and northern urban districts, for example, dragged out the process of desegregating schools. Many big city district leaders also opposed breaking up central office bureaucracies and decentralizing operations into smaller units. The district, reformers said, was the enemy of school reform. Look to the school as the best way to change classroom lessons and district operations. By the early-1980s, especially after A Nation at Risk report appeared, the school became central to reformer’s plans. The whole-school reform movement surged forward in both large and small districts and continued through the 1990s. Charter schools, after all, when they began and now were and are instances of whole-school reform.

Not so in the early 21st century. Districts have again become the engine of reform. Big city districts, for example, receive grants from private donors and federal agencies. Foundations give awards to those urban districts that improve student academic achievement. Surely, individual schools still receive grants and the whole-school reform model exists alongside major district-based efforts. But the facts are clear among contemporary reformers: Federal and state authorities establish the framework for districts to manage reform. Districts manage individual schools to implement the reforms.

Which units of change, then, best achieve reformers’ goals? Research studies have little to offer in guiding those who seek to improve schools. Historically, the answer has shifted again and again, depending on reformers’ goals, and the theories they had in their heads about how planned changes occurs in complex institutions such as public schools.


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3 responses to “Targets of U.S. School Reform: Teachers, Schools, Districts, States, and Nation

  1. Mike G

    Larry, has there ever been a period of reform where the prevailing belief was:

    1. All levels (from whole states to districts to schools to individual teacher) are fully able to successfully “resist” any pet idea…at minimum to “dilute” beyond recognition.
    2. So the only plausible reforms are “Opt In” by individual teachers?

    The idea here would be akin, to say, Poland wanting to “influence” Russia. All coercive efforts #1 are obviously off the table. Poland might not like that but does accept it. So #2 is what’s available for discussion.

    • larrycuban

      If I understand the question you asked, Mike, my answer would be yes to your first question. Consider desegregation between 1954 (Brown v.Topeka) and 1980. States and individual districts in North, Midwest, and West broadly accepted the Supreme Court decision and states provided curriculum and advice to districts.

      In the South, however, for every Charlotte (NC) that did include curricular content after Brown decision, nearly all other districts in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia did not until federal judges in those states ordered schools to desegregate. Until that occurred, individual teachers in those states, could not desegregate their classrooms. In curricular matters, however, before states made policy changes in content (e.g., sex education, Black history) individual teachers would and did) create and use lessons on above topics and others as well.

      If my answer does not respond to your question, Mike. Let me know.

  2. mike g

    Thanks Larry!

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