Tag Archives: school reform

Reimagining the U.S. High School: An Open Letter to Laurene Powell Jobs (Part 1)

Dear Mrs. Laurene Powell Jobs:

I commend you for initiating a national challenge to transform the comprehensive high school into a Super School and putting $50 million on the stump for experts, parents, practitioners, and academics to compete for in creating better high schools than exist now. Reinventing the high school should generate an enormous range of suggestions for your expert panel to consider after the national round of open meetings end in November. What you are launching is worthwhile especially if it were to spark a national conversation about the goals of tax-supported public schools in a democracy where the economy has shifted from industrial-based to an information-driven one. Whether that conversation (and debate, I hope) will occur depends greatly, I believe, on you and your associates knowing about how high schools have, indeed, changed over the past century and, of equal importance, the checkered history of efforts to “transform” the U.S. high school. That historical knowledge should be one ingredient in considering different groups’ proposals inspired by your challenge.

The most recent serious effort to alter the comprehensive high school was when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools 15 years ago, an effort that the Gates Foundation shut down in 2009. Yet “small high schools” persist–it is one of the changes in high schools that I refer to above–because they personalize instruction for many students heretofore ignored in conventional comprehensive high schools.

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise funding decisions. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred. In the 1950s, for example, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools exist across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Gates Foundation underwrote the move to downsize large comprehensive high schools into small ones. My point is that the high school you want to “transform” has changed many times in past decades. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, fundamental questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school  then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current generation of reformers that you seek to inspire, Mrs. Jobs.

I write this open letter to you not to depress you or your staff about earlier efforts to “revolutionize” high schools.  Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice,  the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Which brings me to my one suggestion.

Among your retinue of experts to advise you on funding proposals, I ask that you include a historian of education who knows the past and its rich collection of previous attempts to bring the high school into alignment with a society undergoing profound economic, political,and social changes as is occurring here and now. There are many fine historians of education. A short list might include Jonathan Zimmerman, William Reese, Geraldine Clifford, John Rury, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, Ellen Lagemann, and David Labaree. I hope you will tap their knowledge and insights.

Knowing about past high school reforms, I believe, will inform your decisions about which grants to approve amid current controversies over Common Core standards and increased state testing. If you want to increase the probability of success in this venture, such historical knowledge can arm you and your staff sufficiently to make wise decisions when it comes to “transforming” U.S. high schools.


Larry Cuban




Filed under Reforming schools

OECD Report: Puzzles To Solve (Part 2)

In this post, I will sketch out two puzzles that emerge from the OECD report, “Students, Computers, and Learning.” The first arises from the gap between high PISA test scores and low use of computers in school in particular countries. The second puzzle is trying to explain the inattention that media both mainstream (newspapers, magazines, network news) and side-stream (opinion and curated blogs, Twitter) has paid to this report.

Puzzle 1: Students from countries that score high on PISA in 2012 spend less time in school using computers than European and North American students.

International test comparisons have driven the past thirty years of school reform in the U.S. Doing poorly on international rankings has prodded reformers to call for U.S. students to copy Asian and Scandanavian countries in their language, math, and science lessons. The OECD report on computers in 60-plus countries’ schools, however, offers empirical data that raise serious questions about one sturdy pillar of U.S. school reform: more access to and use of high-tech devices and software will improve teaching and learning.

Consider that 15 and 16-year old students in Singapore, Korea, Japan, China (Hong-Kong and Shanghai),  have scored higher on PISA (first, second, third, fourth, and sixth) than the U.S. (twelfth) yet–this is one big “yet’–have less access to computers in their schools and spend less time in school on the Internet (pp.18- 22). Thus, the report concludes: “PISA results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education” (p.15).

How come? Why the disparity in the above countries between access and use of computers in schools (all of the above countries have very high rates of computers in homes) and scores on PISA. No cause and effect do I suggest. This is a puzzling correlation that goes against the non-stop championing of school reformers who tout the virtues of getting more and more devices and software into U.S. classrooms. The OECD report does suggest one tantalizing (and possible) reason, however. Maybe, just maybe, the thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet and read with understanding web articles and documents, as the OECD report says, can be just as well taught in conventional lessons without use of tablets, laptops, and top-of-the-line software (pp. 15-16). The puzzle remains.

Puzzle 2: Media attention to the OECD report has been minimal, especially in high-tech rich areas.

The report appeared on September 13, 2015. “Warp speed” news in the 24/7 media cycle guaranteed immediate reference to the report. And a flurry of articles in U.S., European, and Asian news outlets appeared (see here, here, here, and here). Within days, the report had been picked up by bloggers and occasional tweeters. Many of the articles and news briefs leaned heavily on OECD press releases and statements in the document by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills for OECD. In the U.S., national and regional newspapers and network TV stations ran pieces on the report (see here, here, and here).

In those areas of the U.S. where high-tech businesses are crucial parts of the economy (e.g., California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts) barely a passing reference to the OECD report. None at all (as of 9/22) appeared in news organizations in the San Jose-to-San Francisco corridor. Of course, it may be a matter of time–I scoured Google’s references to the OECD report for only 10 days after it appeared. In the face of the ever-hungry news cycle, however, if the OECD report went unnoticed after it appeared, chances that the report’s findings on computer access, use, and academic performance turning up later are slim, given the media imperative to produce fresh news hourly. There may well be analyses in magazines, journals, and the blogosphere that appear weeks or months later but after 10 days, the report will be stale and forgettable news.

Here’s what’s puzzling me: National coverage in the U.S. of the OECD report was spotty. While the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post ran pieces on the report, The New York Times has not made reference to it. And in the nation’s hot spots for birthing hardware, software, and apps in northern California, Texas, and Boston, barely a mention. How come?

I can only speculate about the little attention that this eye-catching report on the connections between computer access, use, and performance has attracted at a moment in time in the U.S. when entrepreneurs and vendors promise efficient and effective management of resources and student improvement in reading, math, and science. Across the nation more and more school districts are spending scarce dollars on tablets, laptops, and software. My hunch is that the mindsets of high-tech entrepreneurs, vendors, media executives, foundation officials, and school district policymakers  contain deep-set beliefs in the power of technology to make fundamental changes in every sector of society, including schools. When occasional reports like the OECD one  appear that challenge the beliefs, it is occasionally noted but not taken seriously or simply ignored. Academics call this inability to absorb information running counter to one’s beliefs, “confirmation bias.” My hunch is that the OECD report has been largely dismissed by ever-scanning mainstream and side-stream media editors, journalists, and bloggers precisely because of this bias toward the power of computers and technology to whip schools into academic shape.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

“Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

The above headline comes from the Irish Times (September 15, 2015) reporting on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study: “Students, Computers, and Learning.” Other online and print media headlines on the OECD report capture in simple words different aspects of the report: “Schools Wasting Money on Computers for Kids” or “Putting More Technology in Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter.” Of course, headlines are compressed sentence fragments seeking to convey the essence of the study.

But media DNA requires going for the sizzle, not the steak.

I have read the report’s Executive Summary, looked at the tables of over 60 countries tracking changes in computer access and use, student performance, and national expenditures between 2009 and 2012. Measuring student performance (ages 15 and 16) was the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that covers countries in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America.

Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the study.

*Increased access and use of computers in over 60 countries between 2009 and 2012 has yet to translate into improved PISA scores in reading, mathematics. or science in these nations (p. 15).

*The thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet successfully in a digitally-dominated society can be taught and learned with “conventional … pedagogies and tools.” (pp. 15-16).

*”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (p. 17).

As the array of headlines indicate there are different interpretations that can be extracted from the OECD research report (including mine). Surely, the notable increase in access to devices and software is an accomplishment just as increased student and teacher use of both in lessons. What is newsworthy to me, of course, is that one-leg of the three-legged stool justifying buying these devices since the 1980s was academic improvement. The other two were that the new technologies would transform teaching and get students ready for an information-driven labor market. The academic improvement leg has wobbled badly since then from the scarcity of evidence to support the claim of improved achievement. The OECD report severs improved test scores from the list of reasons to buy tablets, laptops, hand-held devices, and accompanying software. What about the other two legs of that stool justifying purchase of new hardware and software?

Transforming teaching from teacher-directed to student-centered has been a pipe dream. Yes, those teachers already inclined to develop student-centered lessons or already doing them latched on to computers (whether in labs, or with 1:1 laptops and tablets) to do better what they were already doing. But “transforming” teacher-centered instruction to student-centered for most teachers–given the constraints of the age-graded school and work demands placed upon teachers–has not occurred.

The third leg of that stool has been preparing students for an information-based society (and labor market). That reason has become the over-riding public justification policymakers give  for buying a trove of hardware and software in the past decade. Note that I used the word “public” in the prior sentence. Covert reasons for buying high-tech devices and software is simply the political pressure on school boards and superintendents to keep up with adjoining districts and reassuring parents and local voters that their children and youth are using up-to-date tools in school and being prepared for all those high-paying jobs in the computer industry, finance, engineering, robotics, etc. ,etc. Keeping up with the Jones may not have started with schools but it surely has infiltrated policy decisions when it comes to new technologies.

The shift to justifying outlays of so much public money for tablets, interactive whiteboards, and glamorous software shows up in the mania for requiring high school students to take computer science courses (see New York City). The spread of coding camps and teaching kindergarteners to write code (see here and here) are also part of this rationale for buying more and more devices and software with scarce education dollars.

So within the past decade, the three-legged rationale justifying district decisions to buy laptops, tablets, and new software has been demolished. No more hype about improving academic achievement. No more words about revolutionizing teaching. What remains is the strictly vocational aim of preparing this generation of students for jobs. As has occurred time and again during surges of school reform—inserting new technologies into classrooms is simply another reform–the deeper and more important issue gets side-stepped; What are the overall purposes of tax-supported public schools in a democracy?

The OECD report offers U. S. policymakers a rare opportunity to step back and ask why are we spending so much money on devices and software when the results in so many nations, including the U.S., show such little return on investment? In Part 2, I look at the response thus far to this report.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

Burned Out Teachers (Part 2)

There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).

Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.

The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also  has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.

Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.

Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.

The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.

 Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s  energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.



Filed under Reforming schools

Why Do Some School Reforms Last?

School reformers seek to fix problems. Many of these “solutions” appear and disappear again and again–as the previous post argued. Yet some past reforms do stick.  How come?

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will run well; it has been dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump-incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation-fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) and Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom film and radio, and the project method, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom at the turn of the century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either transformed into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either become incremental or disappear?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (Kirst and Meister 1985; Tyack et al. 1980).

They enhance,not disturb,the existing structures. Many of the progressive reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities,for vocational classes, and counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for the job market expanded the numbers of adults in schools to help children. Similarly, additional space for social services enhanced the school program. More staff and social services amended and elaborated current structures; they did not permanently alter them.

They are easy to monitor. Many of the progressive reforms were visible. They could be counted and seen. The service was either available or it was not, for example, hot lunches, summer schools, health clinics, playgrounds, and courses in home economics and drafting. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. -New staff positions such as counselors and vocational education teachers created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for their share of the school budget. Other groups outside the school became deeply entangled in the reform and sought its continuation. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for driver’s education, car dealers and insurance companies; for physical education, sports equipment vendors) supported the new services. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators and commercial groups to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some progressive reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories. Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that have longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time.

Studies of nonschool organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Michels, Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Michels’s (1949) study of Germany’s Social Democratic party, Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document organizational adaptability in places founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of the Progressives’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Joseph Morrissey, Harold Goldman, and Lorraine Klerman (1980) examined a century and a half of the Worcester State Hospital (Massachusetts) and described shifts in goals and treatment of mentally ill patients. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Institutional and political reasons (e.g., fits existing structures, easy to monitor, and constituency approval)  explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.



Filed under school reform policies

Educators’ Love Affair with Change

I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed. George Carlin, comedian [i]

The quip echoes a disappointed reformer eager to improve public schools and classrooms but coming up with zilch. The one-liner suggests that change and its flip side, stability, are inextricably tied together. Just as a shadow cannot exist without light, change and stability cannot be separated from one another in organizations. Constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang, helps explain why so often well-intentioned leaders often fall on their faces after adopted policies aimed at altering what happens daily in the nation’s classrooms end up unimplemented. Smart, energetic decision-makers frequently miss the importance of seeing both continuity and change at work in classrooms, schools, and districts. Like George Carlin, they insert a dollar when they adopt policies and are disappointed when they see little change.

The embrace of change (one can substitute “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., high-fashion and automobiles get re-worked annually, re-inventing one’s self is common, moving from one place to another is a national habit, standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable). Change is equated with progress toward material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.” [ii]

Improving education as a worthy goal in of itself has fueled myriad reform efforts over the past century. Reformers from the political left and right—each seeking different goals for U.S. schools–have assumed that public school officials and practitioners often oppose designed changes to keep things as they are. That assumption is in error.[iii]

The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.

In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance).

No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.


[i]“Funny Comedian Quotes and Videos” at: http://funnycomedianquotes.com/funny-quotes-and-jokes-about-change.html Retrieved March 10, 2015.


[ii] Robert Nisbet, The History of the Idea of Progress (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995); Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).


[iii] For a recent and typical example of this genre of critique see Jeff Livingston, “3Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education,” U.S. News and Report, February 5, 2013.



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