School & District Management Commentary

The Never-Ending Quest

By Larry Cuban — March 26, 2007 8 min read

For nearly five decades, I have either studied or been involved in reforms aimed at overhauling public schools and classroom teaching. From these experiences, my youthful optimism about what can be done in schools has been tempered. Yet despite this, and despite the dismal history of school reform policy in this country, I have not yielded to corrosive doubt about what smart, determined leaders can do in urban schools. In trying to be realistic about reform policies and classroom practice, I have blended an optimistic heart with a skeptical mind.

Being realistic, however, does not mean that I push a particular prescription for what should be done. Reform-minded policymakers, parents, and practitioners—who I hope are as allergic to the charming peddlers of panaceas as I am—need to think smarter about the steady rollout of school reforms and the never-ending challenge to improve schooling for low-income minorities.

—Susan Sanford


Four reform strategies have dominated national policy agendas over the past 25 years. Whole-school reform began in the early 1980s, with the “effective schools” movement’s focus on transforming one school at a time by working on school climate, curriculum, instruction, and testing. It continues today under the aegis of the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform Program and donors who fund small high schools.

A second strategy for reform is parental choice. Since the early 1990s, vouchers, charter schools, magnets, and theme schools have breathed life into the theory that having a choice of schools motivates parents and engages students, while frightening into corrective action districts fearful of losing state dollars as students migrate elsewhere.

Standards-based accountability, a third approach, shifted into high gear in the 1990s, when U.S. presidents, governors, and mayors embraced it wholeheartedly. The theory is that when a district’s goals, curricula, textbooks, tests, and instruction are tightly aligned, teachers will be able to help students become high performers on tests, graduate from high school, and go to college.

The fourth reform strategy is to concentrate authority and accountability in elected federal, state, and local officials who can do something about bad schools, rather than relying on unaccountable district educators who too often block reform. The theory is that changing school governance—from state takeovers of low-performing districts to mayoral control of schools—will lead to higher test scores.

My experiences with these four reform strategies lead me to the following conclusions:

In trying to be realistic about reform policies and classroom practice, I have blended an optimistic heart with a skeptical mind.

• Most urban districts, either with or without mayoral control, have combined standards-based accountability and parental choice. Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and Boston, for example, focus on state standards while offering parents a portfolio of choices in elementary and secondary schools.

• While a few national leaders call for fundamental changes in the existing system—as in the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, for example, or state voucher plans—the reform strategies in place have sought incremental, not fundamental, changes in existing structures. In fact, many highly admired entrepreneurial ventures, such as Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and Edison Schools Inc., use the rhetoric of fundamental reform but choose to work within districts and press for small but important changes in policies.

• The good news in all of this is that some strategies have worked in some districts for a while. Many urban systems using standards-based accountability strategies, for instance, have raised the percentages of their students testing proficient in reading and math in the elementary grades. The Broad Prize for Urban Education, leaning heavily on test scores, has awarded $1 million each year since 2002 for improving academic achievement, to districts such as Houston; Long Beach and Garden Grove, Calif.; Norfolk, Va.; and Boston.

There is bad news, too, however. None of these district reform strategies, alone or in combination, has yet to overcome persistent challenges in raising test scores and graduation rates. Because anyone championing a school reform must not only make the case for the success of a particular strategy, but also show how it can triumph over serious obstacles, let’s review these challenges.

Few district reforms are implemented fully. Converting a large high school into several small ones, for example, requires time, redirected resources, sensitivity to different school settings, and extensive logistics. Too often, because of problems like insufficient time, inadequate staffing, skimpy funding of teacher support, leaders’ lack of political will, or negligible community support, implementation is partial. Half-done implementation means it is impossible to determine whether or not the strategy is a good idea deserving of systemwide replication. (There are, of course, notorious non-educational examples of half-done implementation in Iraq and in New Orleans after Katrina.)

Fully implemented strategies still may not alter classroom practice. Even after school boards have adopted curriculum standards, mandated tests, created small high schools, and established structures for parents to choose their children’s schools, the changes often stumble in the task of getting teachers to alter what and how they teach.

This can be seen most obviously in urban districts where test scores rise for a few years in elementary schools and then plateau or even fall, with very little gain in secondary school scores, including in those newly created small high schools. To meet this challenge, many districts hire coaches to help teachers translate curriculum standards into daily lessons. This sensible tactic provides expert help to teachers. Again, however, such professional help, sensible as it is, requires sustained funding, as well as district leaders who can buffer the reform from the inevitable barrage of criticism that occurs when test scores fail to rise, or plateau, or even fall.

Failure to improve the lowest quartile of students continues. When I say the “lowest quartile,” I mean those students who, year after year, receive grades of D or F in their subjects. These students are not delinquents; they are years behind in grade. They struggle with basic reading and math. They need early identification and greater intervention than currently is offered by mainstream reform strategies. The lack of sustained action in behalf of these students reveals clearly that all the grand words about the importance of equity are being lip-synched.

Sustaining reforms still remains out of reach of most districts. Without seven to 10 years of steady attention to district improvement, early victories slip away and the lowest quartile of students remains neglected. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, cities that were at first touted as promising national models of school improvement eventually faded into mediocrity.

Sustainability of school reform means continuity in the tenure of school board members and superintendents. The Broad Foundation awards have gone to urban districts where the superintendents have served at least five years—and two of the winning districts’ superintendents had served 10 years. Continuity in reform also means providing stable funding, building leadership within the district to adapt reforms, and maintaining unflagging political support from business and civic leaders, community groups, and state officials.

If these are the challenges, then what must be done? In trying to think smarter about district reform, I offer the following five questions that reform-minded civic and business leaders, parents, and practitioners must ask again and again when districts advertise major changes in direction:

1. Did the reform strategy’s new structures and processes (standards-based accountability, choice, governance, and so forth) get fully implemented? Incompletely implemented reform means you never know whether what was invested ever worked, much less touched teachers and students.

2. When implemented, did they change the content and practice of teaching? Putting parental-choice structures and curriculum standards in place occurs frequently. But if these are intended to alter classroom content and practices, and yet cause hardly a ripple of change in what teachers and students do daily, then the reform has failed.

3. Did altered classroom content and teaching practice lead to desired student learning? If the answer is yes, exactly what students learned from the changes teachers instituted in content and methods must be determined and documented. If the answer is no, then dump the reform.

4. Was student learning captured by state tests? Some of what students learn in classrooms as a result of reform policies can be assessed by standardized tests, but much cannot. If the state tests miss, say, critical-thinking skills—a desired outcome—then either they should be changed or other assessments used.

5. Did students who achieved proficiency on state tests go to college, graduate, and enter jobs paying solid salaries? This question puts on trial the quarter-century-old assumption that education is linked to the economy, and demands evidence on whether the assumption is accurate. Few districts do this.

If the challenges to current reform strategies are met, and these questions answered, then the deeper (and unaddressed) issues of student access to equitable resources can come to the surface: the narrowness of current definitions of “good” schools, for example, and whether or not schools alone can make a difference in students’ lives. If that happens, we will finally be thinking smarter about school reform.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as The Never-Ending Quest


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