Education Chat

Cutting Through the Hype of School Reforms

This chat focused on how educators and the public can cut through the hype of school reforms. Our guests are Larry Cuban and Jane L. David, co-authors of A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reforms.

Cutting Through the Hype of School Reforms

March 28, 2006


Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University; and
Jane L. David, director of the Bay Area Research Group, co-authors of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer’s Guide to School Reforms.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about how educators and the public can cut through the hype of school reforms to identify and understand what works best. We have a lot of very interesting questions waiting to be answered. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Ann Gracia, Teacher, Michigan Schools:
What role do you see for superintendents to play in achieving school reform?

What role do you see for school boards to take in achieving school reform?

Larry Cuban:
Dear Ann, If by school reform, you mean system-wide programs aimed at improving what principals and teachers do daily, then the superintendent must secure teacher and principal support for changes. Providing staff, time, and money to ensure that program gets fully implemented are other crucial tasks performed by the school chief. The superintendent looks for ways of improving the program and makes changes as problems arise while holding principals and teachers responsible for the desired outcomes. The school board’s endorsement of the reform, appropriating funds to fully support the reform, seeing that modifications are made when necessary, and holding the superintendent accountable for the desired outcomes become the school board’s responsibility.

Question from Elizabeth Kowalewski, Special Educator, High Bridge Elementary MD:
The NCLB law has mandated reforms in schools, and as a special educator, I am well aware of my responsibilities, as well as my school’s and school system’s. What is very unclear is the responsibility of students’ parents. In spite of our best efforts, it is difficult to enlist many parents’ cooperation. What are the consequences of enlisting all stakeholders in school reform--students, teachers, school boards, administrators--without parents?

Jane L. David:
For all students, parental cooperation and support makes a huge difference. Educators can make a difference but are obviously limited by the amount of time they have with students--and whether the students come to school regularly, whether they have eaten and slept, whether they have whatever aids they might need from medications to eyeglasses, and so on. It’s a two-way street, however. Educators are not always anxious to reach out to parents--some from fear, many from lack of time and poor response. Ultimately, the students who benefit the most from school are those who have the commitment of both the education community and their families.

Question from Ron Ippolite, teacher/ed.leadership grad student, Washington Township School District, Sewell, NJ:
I am presently conducting research on the Co-nect school reform model and would like to hear your thoughts and feelings on the subject. What is you opinion on the unique attributes of the Co-nect program? Are there any specific core beliefs/elements that may benefit a school’s curriculum design? Also, from a supervisory/curricular position, what evidence (or lack therof) exists that indicates the success of the program especially for at-risk/marginal students? Thank you for taking the time to review my questions. Ron Ippolite

Jane L. David:
I am not familiar with the specific attributes of the program you describe. However, some general rules of thumb apply to all school reform models as we describe in our book chapter on this topic. For any program to succeed it needs to be well-matched to the skills and knowledge of the teachers and the needs of the particular students. A program is more likely to be effective if teachers embrace the approach and understand how to implement it. Moreover, the conditions for its success must be in place, whether these be technology, materials, time, or ongoing professional development for teachers. For any program, additional and tailored attention to the needs of at-risk students will be essential; teachers may well need training and support to adapt the program to these needs.

Question from Gil Garcia, educator, Harpers Ferry, WV:
Research-based practices should underlie each and every “reform” listed by the authors and not be listed separately. For example, if the results of RCT trials indicate a significant difference between small versus traditonal teacher/student ratios, then the evidence might be used to initiate such a strategic reform. Further, school personnel can do this research on their own, assuming that they follow scientific protocols. What is your take on this? Hi Larry!

Jane L. David:
Several takes (out of many possible). One is that conducting RCTs (i.e., randomized experiments) is easier said than done. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to do and not well-understood by most educators. Second, RCTs rarely produce useful guidance. Most do not produce significant effects and those that do often show effects for some kids in some circumstances, not overall. In fact we know this to be true for most reforms: whether they produce the desired results is primarily a function of how well they are carried out and how closely they fit the skills of particular teachers and needs of particular students. Third, results at one time in one place may not apply to another time or another place. Finally, the results may not be possible to implement. Class size is a good example. The Tennessee experiment demonstrated effects for classes of 17 students, yet few states or districts or schools can afford to do this. (Would you rather have your child in a small class with a poor teacher or a large class with a very good teacher?) Evidence is important but it can take many forms, including RCTs but also inquiries into the experiences of teachers and student results in similar schools using the “reform” of interest.

Question from Robert Beman, Atlanta, School Systems Advisor:
One challenge to reform seems to be the approximately 15,000 school districts, and schools each seeking their own solutions. This makes it difficult for Corporate America or government to collectively embrace and support reform in a meaningful way.

The result is a fragmented system of support agreements between various corporations, public schools, private schools, and charter schools across the country in addition to the government.

In the new global economy corporations want qualified, educated, workers wherever they can find them and many want to help education but they want efficiency.

Some large corporations are now quietly signalling a preferenceto support programs in India and China because the centralization allows more rapid, efficient implementation of change.

Is there any chance of a strong, centralized outline and methodology being agreed here in the United States so it can be readily and universally supported?

Larry Cuban:
Yes, the U.S. has 15,000 districts and 50 state systems but since 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, A Nation at Risk report in 1983 and especially after No Child Left Behind, centralization of authority in curriculum standards, accountability, and testing have moved a decentralized system much more closely to a centralized one. When you consider the textbook and testing industries aligned very closely to state curriculum standards across the nation, corporate elites have had no problems in supporting a national reform pushing standards and tests. In short, a national system is already here.

are there any effective ways of measuring school achievement (or reform effectiveness) without using standardized test scores? i just don’t trust results based on family income...

Jane L. David:
There are many different ways. In the realm of testing, tests that are well-matched to what is taught and that measure progress provide a better picture of what students have learned than standardized tests designed to be used across thousands of schools. Moreover tests that include questions that signal what is important for students to know and to do--skills as well as understanding--can be both good measures and good guides for teaching. The tough question is which ways are effective/convincing for which audiences. For example, until recently, Canadians judged school effectiveness by the degree of satisfaction of all the constituencies: parents, students, teachers. Only recently have they followed the U.S. patterns of emphasizing standardized tests.

Question from Mark Carter, Social Studies, North Clayton High:
How do you determine whether a specific “reform” model is appropriate for a particular school?

Larry Cuban:
Ask the teachers. Ask the parents.Ask the students. There are very few “reform” models that can be set down in a particular place at a particular time without friction occurring. There has to be support for the “reform” from the three groups I mentioned.

Question from C.Fitz-Gibbon, Prof. Emeritus, University Durham, UK:
Why is one of the most effective interventions rarely used? - Cross-age tutoring? See

Jane L. David:
Several reasons come to mind as reasons that cross-age tutoring is rarely used in the U.S. One is that the current intense pressure to perform on end-of-year tests marginalizes most activities not seen as central to the tests. Another is that many parents, especially of successful students, see it as detrimental for their children to spend time teaching instead of being taught. (This obviously raises the much larger issue of how students learn.) A third is that it is organizationally cumbersome and requires considerable facility in scheduling and cooperation among staff that is in short supply. And, finally, as with virtually all reforms, definitions of effectiveness differ.

Question from Michael, Social Studies, Seattle Schools:
How do Charter schools fit into this equation of reform?

Larry Cuban:
We have a chapter on parental choice in our book that includes charter schools. Charter schools offer choices to parents, especially in low-income, largely minority districts, that they would not ordinarily have with their neighborhood school their kids are assigned to. Choice, then, is a reform strategy that offers individual parents options they would not ordinarily have and, according to advocates of charters, presses districts to reform their neighborhood schools if many parents pull their children out to send them to charter ones.

Question from John Stallcup Founder APREMAT/USA:
Given there are proven programs that solve some of most pressing education issues like teaching elementary math to Spanish speaking students why aren’t’ we evaluating and adopting more programs from other countries that are proven to work like APREMAT (used by over 1 million students in Latin America), or Singapore’s math curriculum?

Jane L. David:
Programs successful in one country don’t necessarily translate directly into another. Differences in culture and school organization, from student and family attitudes towards education to teacher time to prepare for classes, can make a big difference in whether an approach successful in Singapore or Honduras will be equally successful in the U.S. For example, some U.S. schools have tried Singapore’s curriculum but not been successful because the curriculum materials are only one small part of a larger system. However, your underlying point is an excellent one. Finding out more about programs and strategies in other countries, and figuring out what about them might work here, are worthy endeavors. For example, the idea of radio broadcasts of math in Spanish has a lot of appeal. Perhaps in the U.S. these need to be developed as podcasts.

Question from Sylvia Hara-Nielsen, UHM Doct.Student,:
What other reforms should be in place to ensure the success of school-based governance entities (i.e. SCBM Councils)?

Larry Cuban:
Let me answer your question with questions of my own: Who (and why) set up the local site councils? What does success of local site councils look like? Answers to those questions need to be answered prior to the one you asked about which other reforms need to be in place.Once answered, perhaps the answer to your question will become apparent.

Question from Susan Silber, teacher, Marin Conservation Corps:
A lot of research has shown that environmental education programs - such as project-based learning, field trips, classroom presentations and gardens - both motivate students to learn and consequently raise test scores and help to teach students about important environmental issues. How can school reform efforts better promote and support such environmental education programs?

Jane L. David:
You raise two important topics. One is the motivational and educational value of applied learning--projects, trips, gardens. The other is the desirability for educating students about the environment. Both have advocates and both have critics. Currently, projects and field trips have all but disappeared since they do not appear to be directly connected to high-stakes tests. Similarly, issues of the environment, as do many topics, take a back seat to reading and math. Documenting the effectiveness of many small efforts is one constructive step. This means being clear about the learning goals and measuring them in ways that will make sense to those outside the school.

Question from M. F. Sawyers, First Grade Teacher, Virginia:
What role should teachers play in education reform? Shouldn’t they have a greater say in policy-making? Why don’t they and how can we make a change? Thank you.

Jane L. David:
In our book, we strongly argue that teachers should have more influence on policymaking. In fact, that policymakers should consult teachers prior to legislating reforms. For an eloquent and more detailed response than space allows here, see the March 15 Commentary in Ed Week by Sheryl Boris-Schacter “Why Aren’t Teachers Weighing In on Educational Policymaking?”

Question from Betsy Hammond, reporter, The Oregonian:
In Portland, Oregon, the school system has declining enrollment and declining revenues. A draft proposal calls for converting from a pattern of elementary and middle schools to K-8 schools, to save money and raise achievement. But research says K-8s would only raise eighth-grade achievement a little or might even cause it to get worse. What is a proven way to raise middle-grades achievement that a district such as Portland could enact while cutting per-pupil spending and closing small schools?

Jane L. David:
Shifting to K-8 by itself is unlikely to change achievement patterns (we have a chapter in the book on this topic.) If only anyone knew a proven way to raise middle-grades achievement! However, if I were to pick one way most likely to depress achievement, it would be to cut funding. If enrollment is declining, it is probably a more cost-effective solution from a facilities point of view to increase elementary school enrollment by adding grades. But that doesn’t speak to achievement at all. Portland has suffered from years and years of budget cuts. It’s hard to imagine that there is any fat left in the system. Unfortunately, much of what is needed does cost: more training and expert support in schools for teachers which requires time which requires dollars. Many middle school teachers need to brush up on math--algebra is taught much earlier now than it used to be--and learn more about literacy instruction for young adolescents.

Question from Margaret Trybus, Director of Curriculum, Lyons Township High School, LaGrange, Illinois:
What is your opinion of the small schools movement as a model for high school reform? What other high school reform models do you think should be considered especially in light of the president’s focus on high schools?

Larry Cuban:
We deal with the small high school movement in a chapter in our book.There is much that I like in small high schools that pride themselves on being personal, rigorous,engaging, and sending all of their graduates to college. Lousy teaching occurs in small and big high schools. So smallness is not magical nor is college prep. Many students need other options beyond 4 more years of sitting in classrooms. Large comprehensive high schools can be “good” also. High schools that mix college prep and tech prep offer students choices that small high schools do not offer.

Question from Cheryl Washington, Admnistrator ,Word Of Outreach Christian Academy:
How does your book address effective school culture as a viable reform effort in the scheme of school improvement?

Jane L. David:
Our book doesn’t address school culture as a reform per se but the idea comes up in the discussion of others. For example, we discuss the importance of trust and shared mission under “Whole School Reform” and provide an example of a program designed to create a different climate in the school that helps adults and students work together to improve achievement. Although “culture” means very different things to different people, and therefore ideas on how to change a school’s culture vary widely, there is no doubt that the culture of a school is terribly important.

Question from Ying Hui, Ph.D. The University of Texas at Austin:
When ELL population is growing rapidly today, what are some major “reforms” at district and school levels that we should take to accommodate the need?

Larry Cuban:
We have a chapter in our book that lays out our views on ELL kids. From securing effective bilingual, ESOL, and sheltered English teachers to extended day, preschool, summer programs, and involving parents in programs--are just a few of the district and school efforts that need to be undertaken. Using the language strengths of ELL kids as translators and as participants in dual immersion programs are also strategies that can be used.

Question from Hal Portner, consultant:
Over the years, I have seen attempts at reform flounder when both those setting policy and those attempting to carry it out fail to understand how their particular area of focus relates to other areas operating in the vast arena of public school education. Do you agree that such short-sightedness is a determent to reform, and if so, to what extent do you advocate for and inform the application of systems-thinking, (i.e. how programs influence and are influenced by each other) in your work?

Larry Cuban:
Yes, seeing the big picture and how pieces of the system are linked together is important. Board of education members, superintendents, and district office officials need to have that big picture fastened to the walls of their office if not stamped on their foreheads. I do not think that teachers and principals working in classrooms and schools have to have the big picture in the foreground when they work directly with kids. In the background, yes, because they are the ground troops in implementing any district-wide change but they do not need to have it in the foreground of their work. The tasks of state and district leaders is to communicate clearly and often how the pieces of the system are aligned (or unaligned; if these leaders fail to do so then it is a deterrent to making effective changes aimed at systemic improvement through failed implementation of a reform.

Question from David Llewellyn, teacher, Sabal Palm Elementary, Naples, FL:
One of the biggest hurdles to effective reform is under-informed and un-informed decision makers in federal, state, and local government, including school boards. How can we make the systemic changes that are needed for meaningful and effective reform when those with the most clout have the least idea of what might actually work?

Larry Cuban:
I take your question to be something like this: why do so many federal, state, and local policymakers make decisions that could be better informed if they had spent time in schools and listened to teachers’ views prior to making decisions? if I am correct, I agree with you. Such out-of-touch decision making is true for other parts of our government--think of the U.S.Department of Defense and the war in Iraq or current decisions made by Congress about Medicare. Of course, decisions are made on various grounds beyond having the relevant facts--ideologies may differ; political interests have to be served, debts re-paid, etc. All of this is to say that the kind of rational, fully-informed decision making you would like to see happens infrequently in a democracy where other values drive decision-making also. Which is why teacher unions and associations formed to get a voice in policymaking.

Question from Rick, math teacher, middle school:
Hi, I read a 2003 letter recently, please read and totally agree. The question is what can be done about it. I am a 7th grade math teacher dealing with similar problems with students who are defiant and disruptive to others. The faculty and administration act as if they are handcuffed and the kids know it.On top of all that we are being held accountable for the student’s state test scores.

In my opinion the NEA has to take a stand to protect the teachers and the learning environment of the other students. These disruptive students are forcing good students to seek other alternatives, private, charter or home schooling.

There needs to be a baseline of behavior for the student to stay in the classroom, or by all means let the parent who has raised or not raised this child, home school them! We are here to teach academic material not social behavior. That is the responsibility of the parents. Yet, no one is bringing attention to this. All we hear is teacher complaints and see articles and tv shows ripping teachers.

Do you have any suggestions?



Larry Cuban:
The piece you read about a substitute teacher trying to deal with disruptive kids in various classes is a familiar story which ends with throwing up one’s hands in despair at the current generation’s lack of respect for a teacher’s authority. I began teaching in the mid-1950s so I have heard and read many such diatribes about each generation coming through the schools. In all honesty, I do not know whether this generation of kids are so different from previous ones although I can say with some confidence that the society they are growing up in is different in many ways from one I grew up in, the one my daughters grew up in, and the one that my grand-nieces and nephews have experienced. This is a long way around to say that I do not have any specific suggestions for your 7th grade math class since I know so little about the context. I leave you with a question: are all of the teachers in your middle school having the same problems? Are kids who disrupt your class also disrupt other teachers’ classes?

Question from Dawn Miller, Student, Brandeis University:
Considering the significant extent of litigation concerning equity and school funding, how do you suggest that reforms be made so as to include minority students and other students in some of the poorest districts in the country?

Jane L. David:
Most reforms are intended to help poor and minority students but there’s much slippage between intent and actually getting the needed kind of help to the students who need it the most. The grounds for litigation are moving away from thinking of equity as equal dollars to defining it as adequacy--what it take to provide an adequate education to students in poor districts. This is an important shift. But the biggest challenge remains: how to get strong teachers to the students who need them the most.

Question from Chuck Ruebling, The Ruebling Group, Educationa Concultant:
My colleagues and I have been looking at NCES-CCD data. Specifically, we looked at 49 school districts that serve state capital cities. (Data was not available for one.) We found that the student to teacher ratio had a median of 15.2 and a range of 10.3 to 21.3. There were only five districts above 18.0. Given all the “hype” about class size, these data have lead us to ask the question: Is there a better way to deploy the teacher resource that is available in many schools in the country? We think the answer is definitely “yes,” and we have worked on some ways to reorganize teachers and the time in the school day to do that in order to implement the concepts of “small learning communities” and “teacher collaboration.” What did you find regarding the realities of student to teacher ratios? What opportunities do you see to redesign schools in light of these numbers?

Larry Cuban:
We did not deal with the issue you raise in our book. As you know, the realities of reported student-teacher ratios is that actual class sizes, i.e., going into a school and counting students in classes, run much higher than reported ratios because, commonly, districts count all teachers--some of whom do not teach a regular load of students (e.g.,librarians,reading specialists, teachers on administrative assignment)--and divide that number into total students. Having said that, yes, there are ways to redeploy teachers to achieve small learning communities and more collaboration as long as teachers are seriously involved in the design and execution of the redeployment.

Question from A Brown, Assistant Principal, LAUSD:
The most well-planned reforms fall short without teacher buy-in. Do you have any ideas to get everyone focused?

Larry Cuban:
I agree with your statement, particularly about reforms aimed at altering teaching practices. Many years ago I proposed a “teacher impact” statement to accompany any policymaker generated reform aimed at schools and classrooms. Like an “environmental impact” statement, such a device would require engagement with teachers and knowledge of conditions within schools that would be affected.

Question from Bob Frangione, Substitute teacher:
I cannot help but to ask just what is wrong with the current system of public education that needs reforming? It seems that a new “reform” comes around about every three or four years, and all of these reforms are based on the idea that the system is somehow not working. Is the U.S. educational system really in need of reform?

Jane L. David:
Waves of reforms have washed over the public schools since their inception and are likely to continue unabated. Some worry the the U.S. is not tops in the world on international tests. Others worry that poor students and thoe of color are not served well. This does not mean that the entire system is a disaster. Nor does it mean that the system needs no improvement. Of course it does. To the extent that reforms represent continuing debate about the role and future of our public school system, they offer hope. However, if reforms are politically motivated and do not consider what it takes for educators to make improvements, the result is likely to be growing despair and frustration instead of optimism and constructive action.

Question from Dealyn Allen, Special Education Supervisor, Pittsburgh Public Schools:
With special education students and some regular education students entering high school with reading and math levels at the 5th grade level or below with gaps in decoding skills and basic math skills, how are reform efforts addressing these issues?

Larry Cuban:
Other than reforms launched within the special education community, the only “reform” is NCLB regulations on special education students meeting AYP goals, some of which are now being relaxed by the U.S.Department of Education. The assumption behind NCLB is that fear of penalties will drive teachers and principals to work harder with special education students to make them proficient. It is an assumption that is severely flawed but nonetheless in force now.

Question from Renee Moore, NBCT, Professor of English, Mississippi Delta Community College:
I’ve seen many good attempts at education reform in local school districts shortcircuited in one of three ways: a)not taken to completion, b) not maintained long enough to really measure whether it was effective or not; c)piling multiple reform plans or programs on top of one another overwhelming and frustrating faculty and students. How common is this elsewhere, and what’s the best way to convince jittery administrators to settle in for the long-haul?

Larry Cuban:
I have seen the same things that you have.The three ways you describe in shortcircuiting reforms are common across the country, particularly in high-poverty urban and rural districts. Were administrators to know how common it is to cripple good ideas and were they to bend their efforts to persuade school boards and community to work on fewer reforms for longer periods of time, then there might be some hope. But schools are political institutions and vulnerable to shifts in popular views or the current wisdom on the moment so administrators do have their work cut out for them.

Question from Lee Allen, Asst. Prof., Univ. of Memphis:
I have read Larry Cuban’s previous dismissal of technology as an integral component of education, and would simply like to know how he now views the unvindicated opinions he expressed in “Oversold and Overused” in light of today’s “flat world” realities. In short, why should we believe him this time...? Thank you.

Larry Cuban:
Professor Allen,

I stand by the evidence I offered and the conclusions I reached in “Oversold and Underused” even amid the current frenzy for 1:1 computing. As for the “flat worlders” who scream like Chicken Little, I analyzed their claims over the past century in “The Blackboard and the Bottom Line” (2004).Perhaps, I can persuade you to read it.

Question from Joe Petrosino-Mid Career Doctoral Student @Penn:
How can one go about school reform if a community of trust is not built into a school. How can one build a community of trust within the faculty in an effort to enact whole school reform ? PS-Dr. Cuban I have enjoyed your writings on technology

Larry Cuban:
Joe, I agree with your assumption about trust within a school. As for building trust, Tony Bryk and his colleagues studied the building of trust in Chicago schools over the past decade. You may already know his work. I have no specifics to offer other than teachers and parents have to be fully knowledgable and involved in a school reform for faith in one another to grow and become the bedrock of action in behalf of kids.

Question from Dennis Schapiro, former Mpls. School Board Member and education writer:
Why do you think so many education reporters who, on the basis of professional experience, should have been able to immediately identify NCLB’s flaws upon enactment in 2002, failed to do more than serve as government mouthpieces?

Larry Cuban:
Dennis, Many education reporters often depend upon research reports and news releases for pieces they do. I do know that some intrepid reporters for major dailies did pick up on the flaws in NCLB. But not many until school people in various states complained to state legislators after the first year and legislators told reporters, etc. Academic reports surfaced after the first year as well and reporting reflected those reports of defects in the law. The only reporter that I know about who was a paid “mouthpiece” was Armstrong Williams hired by U.S. Department of Education to write favorable pieces.

Question from Gregg Sinner, Program Specialist, Education Alliance, Brown University:
Do you agree that the status quo in public education as been moribund for decades? If so, is it not time for a radical new story of learning and schooling, as called for by Stephanie Marshall in her recently released book, “The Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life?”

Larry Cuban:
Gregg, I do not agree with your statement.Nor have I read the Marshall book. So I will stick to what I know. Since the end of World War II, reform after reform has swept over public schools trying hard to disturb the status quo. Think Sputnik, Brown v. Board of Education, Civil Rights movement, Nation at Risk--you know I could go on but you get the picture. Calls for radical change and transformations of teaching and learning have been as common as crocuses in early spring. Now what has happened to all of these calls for radical change as they percolate through the system is another story altogether.

Question from Malcolm Gran, School Director, School District of Springfield Township, Oreland, Pennsylvania:
Hoping to sell the idea of a later start time for high school students to our community, could you tell us the financial implications of that choice. Thank you.

Larry Cuban:
Malcolm, Only financial implications I can think of are revised bus schedules, hiring of drivers, revised lunch schedules, and buses for extracurricular activities. Sorry.

Question from Kathryn Leavitt - Administratior Secondary & Middle School:
How can we possibly hold second language students to the same exit exam and NCLBA criteria as other students? How can schools with high percentages of these second language students possibly make AYP and API scores? We forget to consider the fact that most of the adults that these students count on could not even speak, write, study, and take exams fluently in three years!

Jane L. David:
You are not alone in pointing to the challenges faced in holding second language students, especially recent immigrants, to the same standards as their English speaking counterparts. We devote a chapter to the question of how best to teach English to non-English speaking students and note that the answer is far from clear; however, the research consensus is that learning the academic English needed to succeed in school--beyond conversational English--takes at least five and often eight years to grasp.

Question from Michele Geller-Randel, Parent:
What can a concerned parent do about the constant “application for exemptions” to the student-teacher ratios?

Larry Cuban:
Michele, Ask whoever requests exemptions the reasons.Find other parents who share your concern.Then speak privately to school board members. Ask superintendent for reasons. Speak to board at public meetings.

Question from Sydnee Dickson, Director, Granite School District:
What are your views on how NCLB is impacting reform efforts across the country? Are students who have been traditionally been marginalized getting a well rounded education or has the intense focus on reading and math limited exposure to other opportunities?

Larry Cuban:
Sydnee, For students in schools that have been identified under NCLB for not meeting AYP goals--largely low income and minority schools--students who score low on state tests are scheduled into remedial math and English to get scores up. Such schools and students have little access to electives and, by definition, are not receiving a “well rounded education.” Monday’s article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times made it sound like the issue of restricted courses was everywhere. My hunch is that this cutting back on courses exists mostly in schools that “need improvement,’ ones located in largely poor rural and urban districts.

Question from Dorothy Blaustein, retired teacher, Bd of Education, Bridgeport, CT:
Improving learning skills of inner city and poor rural school children is hard. What are the most important ways to get these children on the right roads to school success?

Jane L. David:
A simple sounding question that demands a response too lengthy to address here. Were there only a simple answer. Good teaching which means getting strong teachers to inner city and poor rural children and helping those already there get stronger. More time for students who need more time, extra help to these children and their families. These are all needed. Still, although schools can and must make a contribution, we argue in the book that schools cannot do it alone. Attention to the early years--and even prenatal care--are part and parcel of the solution.

Question from Don Glass, education consultant:
I am currently in New Orleans where the city and state are trying to re-design the school district. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission proposed a plan that draws from “best practices” and models from around the country. After reading a recent interview with Jonathan Kozol in VUE, I sincerely wonder if enough attention has been paid to race and class issues. Do you have any suggestions on how their proposed district model (a network of clustered charter schools) can effectively address equity in access to quality teaching and opportunities to learn?

Larry Cuban:
Don, Lotteries and other means of keeping access to chartered schools open to all parents is the first suggestion I would have. The charge of “creaming’ students--a coded word for class and race concerns--has been a steady theme among a small group of researchers. The evidence I have seen is, at best, mixed. I would suggest looking at charters in largely minority cities (e.g., Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago) and see how race and class matters are managed there.

Question from Joanne Marie Roll, parent, Denver, Colorado:
What would happen, in your opinion, if parents had to give prior approval to any reform that involved their child?

Larry Cuban:
Joanne, Giving parents veto power over any reform works in private schools and parent-created public alternative schools. As for regular public schools, I would think it would be unnecessary as long as prior to the reform being put into practice parents were informed fully about a planned reform and were given honest, extended chances to modify the reform. Were these to happen they should be sufficient to tell policymakers whether the reform will fly with parents. Most parents, in my opinion, assume that professionals are paid to make decisions about administering and teaching and that they, and not parents, should have veto power over a proposed reform. Parents need to be consulted and need to be involved. If they are neither consulted nor involved, they should make their opposition to the process (not necessarily the reform itself) vocal and sustained.

Question from Peter Campbell, Lead Instructional Designer, Montclair State University:
What do you think of the mixed model/"portfolio” approach that Chicago and Philadelphia are taking? Would you please address the increasing role that private, for-profit companies are playing in these approaches?

Larry Cuban:
Peter, When you are uncertain what works best in low-income minority schools, having mixed approaches such as whole school reform, charters, small high schools, for-profit operated schools etc. is sensible as long as there is a 5-7 year time frame for the programs to get started, evolve, and mature and clear, tough evaluation designs that offer feedback as time goes by and assesses both teacher and student outcomes. For-profits such as Edison do play a part in the mix of approaches.

Question from Rhonda Stone, Literacy Alliance & Read Right:
Hello...What do you recommend schools do when the “research-based” programs being forced upon them by NCLB and Reading First are not working, as evidenced by a state-by-state review of the 2005 NAEP scores for reading? Is there wide-spread understanding that 2005 was the single worst year for NAEP reading scores in a dozen years? Thank you.

Jane L. David:
According to the NAEP website, national average reading scores for grade 4 and 8 were 2 points higher in 2005 than in 1992. But this is nothing to write home about. At the same time, only a third of high school seniors are considered proficient in reading (and these are the ones still in school). Moreover, there is growing evidence that, as has been true in the past, scores drop after 4th grade--the time when comprehension rather than decoding becomes critical. As we say in our chapter on reading reform, the recent emphasis on phonics solves one problem but causes others--one of which is insufficient attention to how students learn to comprehend.

Question from Allayne:
How could you change assessment practice to reflect a standard-based curriculum?

Jane L. David:
I’m assuming you are talking about high stakes tests, not diagnostic assessment for purposes of instructional improvement. One way is for the federal government to make a major investment in creating items that measure challenging curriculum. Some argue such items need to be open-ended and, ideally, performance based. But this approach runs into the enormous cost of scoring such items and the lack of public trust in procedures that appear to be based on judgment. However, mutliple choice items do not need to be isolated bits of information. These are hard and costly to develop. At the same time, moving to a system in which the items are public takes the pressure off the need to continually develop new items. If there are enough items, schools, districts, or states could randomly (or selectively) draw from this larger pool each year. Some variation of this could be done by states or by testing companies.

Question from Rebecca Baumann, Policy Analyst:
How many states have realigned their definition of “proficient” since NCLB was initiated?

Jane L. David:
I don’t know an exact number off the top of my head but it is certainly many if not most. And that number will increase as the deadline for having all reach proficiency approaches. How could it be otherwise? The Center on Education Policy which reports annually on NCLB implementation likely has more information on this topic. Searching the Ed Week site might also yield an answer.

Question from Amanda Batson, CEO, ADB Partners:
What are 2-3 criteria that are crucial for reform success?

Larry Cuban:
Amanda, Because criteria are anchored in values and because reform is value-driven, there will be differences between what I offer and others do. Not an apology, just a fact.

I distinguish between prior conditions and necessary conditions. For prior conditions to be in place, I ask:

1. Do stakeholders (teachers, administrators, parents) share a common definition of the problem that needs a solution (the reform)? 2.Are the stakeholders convinced that things need to change?

3. Are resources (money, people, time) available to launch the changes and build the expertise of those who carry out the changes?

Question from Jan McComb, Executive Officer, Oregon State Board of Education:
I’ve read many articles that link taking rigorous high school courses with college success. The articles don’t say anything about the methodology and leave the reader with the impression that one causes the other. Does the research really support this claim? Do they factor in (or out) individual drive and motivation?

Jane L. David:
I know of no studies that can attribute causality. You point to one important issue--called confounding in the research biz: students who take rigorous courses also have other traits associated with later success. Another is simply a logical fallacy. Those who succeed in college took rigorous courses. This does not mean if everyone took those courses, they would succeed in college.

Question from Royce Page, Coordinator, Valle Imperial Mathematics Project:
What is the best way to influence state law and policy makers to back a particular school reform?

Larry Cuban:
Royce, Get parents involved. Get the teachers behind it. Get students behind it. Write op-ed pieces. Submit petitions. Look, I am talking about policy decisions on reforms as a political process. You can add in items that I have left off.

Question from Phyllis Frank, Washington State Board of Education:
Why do reform efforts, to date, link the success of their movement to the 150 year old traditional school calendar without questioning whether the reform may be more effective if the required days of schooling (177 - 180 nationwide) were balanced around the year thereby reducing the artifact of summer learning loss that occurs after 4-6 weeks away from the formal learning setting? i.e. how can any reform effort be measured for its influence on learning when we plan for cumulative learning loss for all?

Jane L. David:
A year round calendar is a logical response to summer learning loss--as are a variety of summer programs. Eactly which kids lose over the summer and how much is not well documented--and quite difficult to document with spring testing often occurring in April and fall testing in October. Similarly, evidence from year round schools does not suggest this in itself is a solution. It still comes back to what’s going on in the classroom. We have a chapter on the topic of time.

Question from Adele Trent-Gate Teacher-LUSD:
Do present reforms match the students we have now?

Jane L. David:
This is a big question and a good point to raise. Some reforms match some students. No reform matches all students. In the book we argue that no single curriculum, method of instruction, program will fit all students and teachers. More attention needs to be paid to making good matches and allowing the flexibility to adapt reforms to the particular teachers and students.

Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Most people, I think, agree that better teacher training\preparation in Schools of Education would be valuable reform. How would the two of you reform the preparation of K-12 teachers at Stanford, the Institution you know best?

Larry Cuban:
Hi Miles, Stanford already has moved in a worthwhile direction for one-year masters programs under Linda Darling Hammond and Rachel Lotan. They pick the best and the brightest, work them hard in preparing for curriculum and instruction by giving both conceptual and practical knowledge, introduce them slowly into teaching over a 12 month period, and find jobs for them in charter schools, alternative schools, and schools moving into small learning communities.

Question from Dana Bennis, staff member, Calhoun School, New York City:
Research by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, has shown that controlling educational environments are associated with less intrinsic motivation, less conceptual learning, less creativity, and less self-determined learning than environments that support students’ autonomy. Can school reform work without providing students with greater autonomy and choice over their learning?

Jane L. David:
Student motivation is overlooked in far too many school reforms. Without materials and activities that hold a student’s interest, it’s hard to imagine significant progress. Providing students greater autonomy and choice is certainly consistent with the research on intrinsic motivation. The challenge is when and how to do this. Many students need considerable preparation--including structured environments and extrinsic controls--before they are able to use autonomy and choice well. And of course the transition is different for different students. Similarly, many teacher need new skills and knowledge to set up learning environments that foster choice and autonomy.

Question from Kimber Bogard, doctoral candidate Fordham University:
What does the research say about small class sizes? How small is good -- 18, 20, 25? I have the same question for student teacher ratios. And do these numbers change across the ealy elementary grades?

Jane L. David:
The Tennessee study is the most often cited research on class size because it was a randomized experiemnt. It defined small as 17 in the early grades. But we conclude in our chapter on class size that the quality of teaching is more important. One issue is that smaller classes in K-3 often lead to huge classes in the upper grades.

Question from Lisa Ross, Federal Policy Director, Pre-K Now:
What recommendations do you have for policymakers and advocates on instituting a high-quality prek for all program as part of an education reform effort?

Jane L. David:
Taking care that the end result is not diminished services for children who would benefit the most. If universal preschool means dollars to underwrite preschool for parents who can now afford it, the challenge is how to create and maintain quality for poor children. Perhaps a sliding scale. And criteria for staff. Protect against risk of turning preK into an academic exercise.

Question from Herman Fitzpatrick, student edu/admin/supr- City college of NY:
How can accountability and standardized testing realalistically be achieved under the NCLB act without spending more time on these aspects of the law and less time on teaching and learning

Larry Cuban:
Herman, Schools do it in various ways, depending on how well they meet AYP goals. Those schools in the second or third year labeled as “needs improvement” have the hardest time balancing test prep and other subjects in school. But not all schools are in that boat.

Question from Bryan Johnson, Tutor, self employed tutor:
Is any effort done to promote math review? I have many students that have bad fundamentals and some don’t know subtraction, division, fractions and percents; even college graduates! Many give up and walk out when they are faced with a tutor that suggests that they go backwards instead of forwards.

Jane L. David:
Most students need practice with the fundamentals however there are more and less interesting ways of doing it. Perhaps choosing to call it something other than “going backwards” ?

Question from Rep. Terri Austin, Indiana General Assembly:
Often time, reforms are advocated by policymaker or policitians based upon political or philosophical idealogy.

Little time or energy appears to be spent making decisions based upon educational research or substantive data.

And almost always, little thought or attention is given to the capacity to support the implementation,the resources necessary to carry it out, or what policies, program or practices could be discontinued because are no longer necessary or they are not producing the desired results.

How can we encourage more policymakers/politicians to consider reliable, valid data when proposing legislation or other changes to our educational environment?

Larry Cuban:
Terri, Here you have stated the case for rational policymaking directly and clearly. Historically, most reform policies have seldom been evidence-driven--think Sputnik, desegregation, computers in classroom, and now the frenzy over more scientists and engineers. Where progress has been made, in my opinion, is that any reform--ideologically driven or not--to be fully implemented has to have teachers and administrators supportive of it, with the capacity and expertise to put it into practice, and time to phase the policy in. So much evidence has accumulated that--as we put it in our book--"it’s the implementation, stupid!"--that policymakers seeking their pet reforms would be goofy to ignore that the foot-soldiers of reform--teachers and principals--have to be on board and knowledgable.

Question from Marianne D’Emidio Caston, Director of Student Teaching, Antioch University, Santa Barbara:
The recent article in the NY Times illuminated the narrowing of curriculum as a result of NCLB. Under the present circumstances, how would you answer the important question, What knowledge is of most worth?

Larry Cuban:
Marianne, Thank you for the most basic of questions that Plato, Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and a dozen current reformers wrestle with. Competing ideas of teaching, learning, and knowledge have provided answers to this question for centuries. These rival ideas of what is most worthy to know come to us in progressives vs. conservatives and the derivative reading, math,science, and history wars fought over the past century.As a teacher for over a half-century and historian of education my personal answer is a hybrid of a liberal arts curriculum and one flexible enough for me to construct my own knowledge.

Question from Jacob Andoh, Adjunct Professor, Howard University, Washington, DC and UMUC, Adelphi, MD:
Two brief questions, both about K-12 teachers and the teaching profession:

1. To what extent is it factual that the unionization of teachers (and by extension, the contractual protections accorded to even arguably “poor” teachers) in the last several decades in the US, contributed to the general perception of poor instruction and generally low student academic achievement levels, especially in largely minority and economically-disadvantaged communities?

2. How relevant are “Ed. Schools” today to the K-12 public schools reform movement? Are Ed. schools churning out competent teachers or merely certified or certifiable teachers?

Larry Cuban:
Jacob, For your first question, I know of no clear evidence that the presence of teacher unions have caused/contributed to low academic achievement in largely poor minority schools. As for Ed Schools’ relevance to K-12 school reform, it is a mixed story of some schools actively working within school districts and many others blithely going along in paths that have little relevance.

Question from Deborah Miller, Project Manager, Ohio SAELP Leadership Initiative:
Are there any research-based examples of sustained district-wide school reform?

Jane L. David:
The examples of sustained reform come, not surprisingly, from districts where there’s been sustained leadership and focus. District 2 in New York sustained district-wides throughout the 90’s. Boston under the decade (roughly) long leadership of Tom Payzant has sustained its focus. I’m sure there are many I don’t know about--especially in smaller districts--but they are the exception; leadership turnover and change in agenda is far more common.

Question from Jim Clark, Instructional Technology Specialist, Wichita Public Schools:
Question for Mr. Cuban.

What role do you see for technology in driving school reform?

Larry Cuban:
Jim, I have written at length on the fact that technology does not drive school reform now or in the past. See Oversold and Underused (2001)

Question from Chuck Fellows:
Do you view the top down, command and control process structure of the educational community as a root problem? (i.e. the difference between a Toyota style of management and typical American manufacturing management) What are your recommendations for overcoming this barrier to educational change? (barriers as defined by Kuhn, “The Nature of Scientific Revolutions”)

Larry Cuban:
Chuck, No I do not see top-down structure in educational institutions as a root problem. Centralization of authority in districts, for example, have been followed by decentralization of authority in districts (e.g., site-based management) only to be followed by another centralization of authority. In short, it ain’t structures that cause low performing schools.

Question from Jim Thomas, School Improvement District Coach, Hamilton County Educational Service Center, Cincinnati, Ohio:
What are some of the teacher and leader behaviors that are most positively correlated to sustained school reform?

Jane L. David:
Without using correlated too technical, the most obvious is sticking around. Turnover in teachers and leaders, especially in poor schools, is one of the biggest barriers to sustained improvement efforts. An openness to adult learning and opportunities for faculty to work and learn together are key. Both teachers and leaders need good diagnostic skills--an ability to determine problems and the knowledge to figure out their solutions. No specific list of behaviors will fit all people or all situations.

Question from Brian A. Bonner, Ninth District PTA President (San Diego and Imperial Counites, CA):
What role do you see for parent organizations such as PTA in school reform?

Jane L. David:
I don’t think there is a generic answer to this question. Creating bridges between parents and schools is so important and so difficult to do. I think parent organizations can contribute by calling attention to problems and helping with solutions except those residing in the professional domain of teachers. At the same time parents need to create the trust of teachers, many of whom are wary of parents.

Question from Jack Miller, Instructor, Lake Technical Center:
Where do see Career and technical Education, as a part of the school reform effort of todays administration?

Larry Cuban:
Jack, I have been sorely disappointed by the current craze for every kid going to college and the absence of a strong voice for tech-prep, community college/high school collaboration in offering career options for kids who know they do not want to spend 4 more years sitting in classes. My disappointment is also grounded in the extremely high drop out rates of minorities who do go on to college. Policymakers, by and large, clump tech-prep and variations into voc ed and dismiss it. That is a mistake, in my judgment.

Question from Gregg Sinner, Program Specialist, Education Alliance, Brown University:
Generative learning -- honoring what students know and can contribute – is lost in the current reform milieu. What Kids Can Do is a remarkable resource. Why do you think we are so reluctant to include student voice in the secondary school reform conversation?

Jane L. David:
For the same reason that much of the conversation doesn’t even include teachers. Too much reform discussion does not include those most directly involved. And as a society we value so-called “experts” over those who do not carry that credential.

Question from Karen Hays, Language Arts Instructional Intervention Specialist, Alief ISD:
In my role of assisting campuses with providing interventions, I have found the real need is professional development. What advice can you give me to facilitate discussion around this as a option?

Jane L. David:
We write about professional development in the book and point out that it needs to be redefined. Teacher openness to professional learning needs to stem from identifying a problem (e.g., by looking closely at some individual students) to which they can imagine that learning something new might help. And they need to have an image of PD that goes beyond the wasteful spray and pray workshop model. Time to meet with other teachers to discuss whether a particular approach is working for some teachers and not others, for some students and not others.

Question from Brenda Dunson, Administrator, DC Public Schools:
In cities similar to the District of Columbia, competition from public charters is seen as a mechanism to spur public school system reforms. Would be interested in your comments.

Larry Cuban:
Brenda, I worked in the DC schools at Cardozo, Roosevelt, and the central office or what used to be called the Presidential Building for nine years and have many fond and difficult memories of those years.

The evidence on charter schools prodding the district’s regular schools to be more innovative and accountable for results is, at best, mixed. For districts like Dayton (OH) and others where charters approach one-quarter of the schools, there is some evidence of district office initiatives to stem the flow of kids to charters. Much less so in larger districts where charters are still less than 10 percent of the total number of schools. Moreover, what attracts parents to particular charters is safety, order, a demanding curriculum--in short a traditional school. Most charters are closer to a traditional model of schooling than a non-traditional model.

Question from C Lee, parent:
What technology solutions can best aid school reform? For example, would parents be more engaged if they were able to get real time assignment/performance information online for their children. Would teachers be more effective if they could collaborate online with others on lesson plans/units. I understand technology alone cannot offer a fix but what tech solutions would be helpful in your opinion?

Jane L. David:
Your suggestions are good ones if they target problems your community faces and if the technology is available to all. One challenge is always who has access to what technology. Using technology as a means of communication has tremendous potential, from homework help lines to places where parents and teachers can communicate.

Question from Stuart Campbell, Adjunct faculty, Santa Rosa Junior College:
One of the reforms to come out of Nation At Risk was the institution of a critical thinking component in college undergraduate requirements. I don’t know the details, but in converation with colleagues, some have indicated that follow up research has not shown any significant improvement in students’ critical thinking abilities. My own experience in teaching such classes lends anecdotal support to that contention. Do you have any first-hand knowledge of this problem, and any suggestions on improving the results in this area?

Jane L. David:
No, sorry. I do know that teaching critical thinking and/or problem solving in the absence of teaching content tends to fare poorly. Thinking skills in the absence of something worthwhile to think about are not very meaningful.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this very informative chat about school reform. And a special thanks to our guests for answering your questions. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on