School & District Management Opinion

Keeping Reforms on Track

By Jane L. David & Larry Cuban — March 28, 2006 7 min read
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We’ve done more than a few laps around the school reform track as teacher, administrator, researcher, evaluator, historian. We have the experience that makes us skeptical of widely touted reforms, for we have seen far more improvements promised than delivered. Skeptical but not cynical. We still maintain a passionate commitment to the public school system and a fervent belief that improvement is not only possible but obligatory.

But we live today in a world of sound bites pumped up by political spin, where press conferences trumpet new education proposals. Policymakers, education leaders, and taxpayers need to know how to cut through this hype and understand which reforms might actually work—and which won’t.

—Steve Dininno


We analyzed 20 different reforms, ranging from higher standards and merit pay to small high schools and improvements in math teaching. Our goal was to slice through the rhetoric surrounding these reforms to seek out evidence and lessons that could inform reformers and citizens alike. From these analyses, we have distilled a set of guidelines that can assist both those who produce reforms—policymakers and advocates—and those who consume them—educators and lay citizens.

Don’t swallow the hype. If a reform sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Programs peddled as miracle cures nearly always fail to deliver desired results, and therefore disappoint. Disappointment in turn breeds cynicism and helplessness. Policymakers and advocates need to shrink their overpromising on what reforms can deliver and lower the volume of attacks on what is wrong with our public schools. At the same time, educators and citizens need to be skeptical of the hype and press for more truth in advertising to support reform claims and the conditions essential for success.

Kick the tires. Do the logic and assumptions of the reform hold up? Reforms aim to increase student achievement, yet most are targeted at a point many steps removed from the classroom. Reconfiguring grade levels, ending social promotion, and merit pay, for example, are all promoted as ways to improve teaching and learning, but the path from each to better teaching and higher test scores is far from clear. Policymakers and reform advocates should provide solid arguments and evidence linking their proposals to promised outcomes.

It’s the implementation, stupid. Policymakers neither administer schools nor teach students; they make policy for both from afar. Whether the policy is a new program or a new way of operating, the ideas are only as good as those who put them into practice. In fact, how well a program is implemented can matter more than what the program is. A famous evaluation, called the “Follow Through Planned Variation” experiment, tested a number of different early-elementary programs by getting several schools across the country to try each one. One of the key findings, too often ignored today, was that the differences in results from one school to the next using the same program were bigger than differences in results between the programs being compared.

Certainly, some programs are better or worse than others. Yet even in better programs, the specifics are often less important than what teachers do daily to put activities into practice. At one extreme, teachers can ignore a program, which they may do if it does not make sense to them. At the other extreme, teachers can be excited enough by a program to put extra energy and resources into tailoring it to fit their students. Investments in professional development designed to meet teachers’ needs can increase the likelihood that they will give a program a good try.

Policymakers can acknowledge these lessons from the past and turn to educators to identify what is needed for the reform to work. The result should be policies that provide an appropriate mix of incentives, guidance, and help that leaves room for differences from one place to the next and among teachers.

Reject extremes. Education reform has long been characterized as a pendulum incapable of stopping in the middle. For decades, debates over teaching reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (computation vs. concepts), and writing (grammar vs. content) have polarized policymakers, practitioners, and parents. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that these “wars” are fought largely with words in speeches, articles, and at conferences, not in actual classroom practices. More often than not, research shows, teachers reject extremist positions and find the best solution to be a balance between polar opposites.

Our goal was to slice through the rhetoric surrounding these reforms to seek out evidence and lessons that could inform reformers and citizens alike.

Extreme positions are also staked out around “scripted curriculum” and “teacher-invented curriculum.” At one extreme, advocates assume that teachers are unable to exercise any judgment, and therefore need textbooks that specify word for word what they should say to their students. At the other extreme, teachers are viewed as creative inventors, who can design their own curriculum with minimal tools and materials. Most educators reject both extremes, yet they find little support for the middle ground from textbook publishers and district leaders.

Policies that insist on extreme positions invite resistance. To increase the likelihood that programs will lead to desired results, policymakers and the public must seek a middle ground. One such option is to provide choices in reading programs, for example, or provide flexibility to educators for adapting approaches to their circumstances.

Déjà vu all over again. Time and again, policies that promote curricular change or rely on tests to determine students’ futures have been tried, yet few policymakers ever looked in the rearview mirror for help in shaping policies. Only with evidence about why policies did or did not work out as intended will reformers be spared predictable failures. Evaluations of earlier reforms don’t provide ready answers to today’s questions, but they do provide considerable guidance on what it takes to increase a reform’s likelihood of success. Policymakers and citizens can ask more questions about what happened when similar reforms were tried in the past.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Policies can at best be only hunches about what will work in schools, and even the best guesses, grounded in all available evidence, are no guarantee of success. Policymakers and citizens need to keep an eye on what happens to reforms, and an ear out for the reactions of teachers and students. Negative reactions and problems are not necessarily signs that a reform should be abandoned, but they likely point to needed adjustments. Figuring out the right adjustments may require more systematic information-gathering. Neither abandoning a reform prematurely nor steadfastly sticking with something that isn’t working even if it is politically popular will contribute to improving schools.

Treating reform policies as ideas to be improved upon— or rejected—is a sensible (and morally responsible) way of dealing with policies that have important consequences for both adults and children.

Ready or not. Policymakers are typically too far removed from the classroom to fully appreciate what teachers and principals need to have in place to make reforms work. In the absence of discussions with teachers and principals during their creation, school reform policies are likely to ignore the minimal conditions and resources needed for a reform to have a chance of success. Many reforms assume, for example, that practitioners have what they need to do a better job, including not only the know-how, but also the necessary materials. In fact, the conditions present in the poorest and lowest-performing schools are often the opposite of what is needed for improvement. Without dealing directly with issues of distrust and racism, as well as poor training, among other problems, efforts to change instruction will fall flat.

Reformers and policymakers of all stripes must try to understand what motivates and helps teachers and students do more, and what does not.

Citizens must call attention to the real conditions for teaching and learning in their schools and ensure that policymakers hear directly from educators.

An ounce of prevention. Waiting until students reach kindergarten to begin to “close the achievement gap” makes both the challenge and the costs extraordinary. For school reforms to succeed, measures directed at closing gaps in learning at a much earlier age are essential. Prenatal care is the starting point for many later learning problems.

It is indisputable that gaps in achievement are closely related to income—poor children start school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Attention to gaps, most of which can be traced to poverty, means attention to known problems before children reach school age.

High dropout rates for poor and minority students exact huge costs on society. Those who drop out are far more likely to end up unemployed and in jail, both of which cost society considerably more than public schooling. If the goals of school reform are to be realized, it’s going to mean reaching beyond the bounds of school reform policies.

* * *

None of these guidelines will be seen as groundbreaking by anyone who follows school reform. Yet together they raise a set of questions worth asking of any reform to help its journey from policy to practice.

Reformers and policymakers of all stripes must try to understand what motivates and helps teachers and students do more, and what does not. This is especially true for efforts targeting the nation’s most challenging schools. If those who champion good ideas keep their eyes on the classroom, they can keep school reforms on track.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Keeping Reforms on Track


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