Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Systemic Reform Harms Urban Schools

By Larry Cuban — May 30, 2001 10 min read
Reformers confuse setting standards with standardization.

For the past quarter-century, critics of public schools have evoked images of failure from horror stories about schools in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Although few adults in this country have ever set foot in these cities’ schools (much less ever taught in them), they believe they know what happens there based on news reports and Hollywood portraits, such as those in the television series “Boston Public” and in films like “Stand and Deliver.”

Yet these critics rarely point to demonstrated successes in big-city schools such as Boston Latin, Bronx High School of Science, or San Francisco’s Lowell High School. With little to connect these schools and other high schools in their districts, civic and corporate reformers have adopted the critics’ blanket condemnation. Unless policymakers address the fundamental problems that permeate public schools, those reformers argue, our economic position in the global marketplace will be seriously endangered.

The standards-based, curriculum-testing-accountability movement—let’s call it “systemic reform"— originated as a critique of the low quality of academic content and skills offered to urban students who will be essential in filling entry-level jobs in a knowledge-based economy. Uniform standards, frequent testing to determine quality, and rewards and penalties are necessary, reformers claim, to ensure that no American child is “left behind.”

The unrelenting criticism of failing public schools over past decades has largely been a critique of urban districts, ones allegedly ill-managed and controlled by strike-prone, anti- reform teachers’ unions. This urban-based critique—all richly amplified in the media—has been slapped onto all American schools.

But let us pause for a moment and reflect on the flawed logic of those who tar all public schools with the urban brush. How, for example, can all of these lousy American schools have produced graduates who have entered and succeeded in colleges and universities highly admired by the rest of the world? How, for that matter, can we explain increases in America’s economic productivity and global competitiveness, and the unrivaled prosperity that surged across the nation in the 1990s, apparently in spite of those inadequately prepared high school and college graduates? When it comes to criticism of American schools, for the last half-century, the urban tail has wagged the public school dog.

Public fears over urban schools have narrowed considerably the nation’s school reform agenda, to one of getting all students ready for college and the workplace. But in the process, systemic reformers have ignored the uniqueness of urban schools, and have given little thought to how influential cities, both large and small, have been in the economic, social, and political vitality of the nation. Moreover, this blending of urban with suburban and rural schools has encouraged presidents, governors, and corporate leaders to embrace reform measures for ailing schools that become a one-size-fits-all strategy, treating some 90,000 American schools as interchangeable cogs in a large educational machine.

Urban-based critique—all richly amplified in the media—has been slapped onto all American schools.

Responding to scorching and unrelenting criticism, educators in urban, suburban, and rural districts alike embraced systemic reform in the early 1990s. They have established standards-based curricula, aligned those curricula to tests, monitored test scores closely, and rewarded and punished teachers, principals, schools, and students when scores rise and fall. The swift spread of this brand of reform has become an early-21st-century formula for changing American public schools.

Proponents of systemic reform have predicted that these changes will produce graduates who can secure high-paying jobs for themselves, while ensuring that American businesses can compete in the global economy. The theory also contains two assumptions: that all public schools can profit from this approach, and that any good leader can put these changes into place, regardless of location. Both assumptions, embraced by President Bush and corporate and civic leaders, are flawed.


All public schools are hardly alike. In 50 states, almost 15,000 districts with almost 90,000 schools serve almost 50 million students. The social, academic, and cultural diversity among and within districts is stunning. In the school systems of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, some high schools regularly send 90 percent of their graduates to college; others rarely send more than 10 percent.

Generally speaking, what exists now in the United States is a three-tiered system of schooling. Nationwide, there is a “first tier” of schools—about one in 10—that already exceed the high academic standards and test-score thresholds set by their states. A second tier of schools—about four or five out of 10—either meet or come close to meeting their states’ standards and cutoff scores on tests. The rest, the third tier of schools, don’t.

Most of these latter schools are located in urban and rural districts with high concentrations of poor and minority families, where struggling learners perform in the lowest quartiles of academic achievement and often drop out.

When it comes to criticism of American schools, for the last half-century, the urban tail has wagged the public school dog.

Yet, the current reform recipe is to hammer this three-tiered system of schooling into one mold. These reforms are aimed at the large number of low-performing urban schools. Publicly admitting this is politically risky because the majority of voters who are middle-class, white, and live in suburbs might question such targeted use of their tax dollars. Forcing all schools to fit the same mold, however, ignores those urban and suburban students already meeting or exceeding the standards. Reformers confuse setting standards with standardization.

The second assumption—any good leader can put these changes into place, regardless of location—also is tainted. For many urban politicians, the quality of public schools plays a key part in attracting employers and young families to their neighborhoods and in sustaining the vitality of the cities. Their reputations as mayors and other officeholders are deeply affected by the quality of their schools. Big-city superintendents, unlike their peers elsewhere, have become key players in the revival of urban America and urban politics. Thus, President Bush’s appointment of the Houston superintendent as the U.S. secretary of education acknowledges symbolically this current truth.

These differences counter the prevailing assumption buried within standards-based reform that school leadership is the same across districts. Leading urban schools, unlike leading other school systems, is intimately tied to a unique and complex mission: Improved schooling will reduce the grim consequences of racial and ethnic isolation and the impact of poverty on academic achievement, while increasing the life chances of families and their children to succeed economically and to contribute to their communities.

By the mid-1990s, changes in school governance were beginning, slowly and openly, to acknowledge these differences in leadership requirements. In some cities, such as Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland, mayors have appointed school boards and superintendents; in these places, schools have become another department of the city’s administration. In Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York, mayors have exercised substantial influence in picking school board members and exerted increasing control over school matters.

In other cities, school boards, losing confidence in the ability of rise-from-the-ranks superintendents to manage big systems, have chosen noneducators to lead their districts. A former governor is Los Angeles’ superintendent; a corporate attorney leads the New York City schools; retired U.S. generals have led schools in Seattle and the District of Columbia; and a former U.S. attorney is the schools chief in San Diego. These reforms in urban school governance (the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs and rural districts have not moved in this direction) are further evidence that city leaders face unique pressures and conflicts.


Here, then, is the folly of systemic reform, circa 2001. Triggered by the massive conversion from industrial capitalism to an information-based economy, its initial focus on failing urban schools became, through the alchemy of systemic reformers, transformed into a national strategy to standardize all American schools. The problem is no longer struggling urban students (except when Congress debates reauthorization of Title I funds, which account for a mere $8 billion out of the $360 billion total spent on public schools nationwide); the problem is now how to supply the nation’s need for skilled workers to enter an information-based economy. And systemic reform is the solution.

Yet, systemic reform blithely ignores the unique challenges facing urban leaders. Systemic reformers seldom urge that more resources be invested in cities to provide more opportunities for students to learn inside and outside schools. They assume that if urban students, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards would just work harder, academic achievement would improve.

Professional educators and lay leaders know in their hearts that for the sake of the next generation, urban schools must do far more than raise test scores and prepare workers.

If, as I have argued, the key assumptions driving standards-based school reform and accountability testing are inapplicable to urban schools, and if the tasks facing urban school leaders differ both in magnitude and kind from those of other districts’ leaders, then the importance and singularity of urban school reform should be apparent. So, too, should the tough tasks that lie ahead for those who believe in the civic and moral obligations that accompany making both cities and schools far better than they are for those who have been so ill-served in the past.

For those who ask, “What comes next?” I offer an initial agenda for civic, business, and educational leaders committed to urban school improvement:

  • More (and wisely spent) resources need to be plowed into urban schools. There is simply no way around the fact that to achieve the mission of tax-supported public schooling in a democracy, educating urban children will cost far more than is spent on it now. Critics who cite Washington or Newark, N.J., as examples proving that the problem is not money, per se, but how it is spent by clogged bureaucracies, need to stay a few weeks in schools and classrooms in Boston, San Diego, and other reasonably well-managed urban districts. There, they would be able to see that there are simply insufficient resources allocated to teaching and learning in urban schools.
  • Press public schools to go beyond vocational preparation. Urban schools do more than crank out graduates to fill entry-level posts in the old and new economies. They prepare students to live in a multiracial society where individual character, community involvement, and civic competence are as essential as job skills. Civic, business, and educational leaders need to openly endorse and programmatically strengthen these larger purposes in urban schools.
  • Provide special programs. Urban schools struggling with large percentages of low-performing poor and minority students require unique in- school and out-of-school strategies that address the complexities of teaching and learning in cities. What works in middle- and upper-class suburbs cannot be cloned for urban classrooms.
  • Reframe urban school reform as a civic project incorporating an array of city-provided social, medical, library, cultural, and recreational services that seek broader development of young people than simply raising test scores.
  • Concentrate on recruiting large numbers of urban teachers and principals; train them within urban schools through yearlong paid, supervised internships and intensive summer programs in cooperation with local colleges and universities; pay premium salaries to those teachers and principals who complete the program and stay at least five years in the district.

Such a brief action agenda is only a beginning, of course. It sets a direction rather than offering a blueprint. Combining experimentation and practitioner “street smarts” will help business, civic, and educational leaders chart a course. And it is the direction that matters.

Professional educators and lay leaders know in their hearts that for the sake of the next generation, the vitality of cities, and the health of society, urban schools must do far more than raise test scores and prepare workers.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as How Systemic Reform Harms Urban Schools

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