‘Change Without Reform in American Education’ — book excerpt

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher and a school district superintendent (in Arlington, VA) who has been  teaching at Stanford University for more than 20 years and conducting research on wave after wave of school reform and their effects. In just about every case, the effects of reform effects have been less than promised. In his new book, “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education,” he takes us into classrooms and drills down into research to make his case. (My colleague Jay Mathews reviewed the book here.) Here is an excerpt from the book.

By Larry Cuban

In this book, I have highlighted the errors of reform-driven policymakers and entrepreneurial business and civic elites for supporting initiatives that have, in my judgment, been unhelpful in schools and misled the public. Yet in criticizing these policymakers I have neglected to point out positive outcomes these reform-minded diverse policy elites with similar interests have achieved over the past three decades.

Positive Outcomes of Three Decades of Economic-driven School Reforms

  1. Hastened shift from defining school effectiveness as the level of resources that go into schooling children and youth to exclusive concentration on outcomes.

Since the late-19th century, policymakers judged school quality and effectiveness by how much money was spent per-student, the credentials teachers possessed, the condition of facilities, and instructional resources given to teachers and students or what economists called “inputs.”

The use of student test scores to assess school effectiveness and student learning began in the mid-1960s when the U.S. Congress mandated that standardized test scores be used to evaluate the success of Title I programs targeting low-income schools in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. By the end of the 1970s, urban school reformers had begun to compare and contrast those high-scoring urban elementary schools enrolling poor and minority children with schools in neighborhoods with similar enrollments that were low-performers. Ronald Edmonds and others noted the factors that were associated with high performing schools and throughout the 1980s, Effective Schools programs spread slowly across urban districts. [i]

With the publication of Nation at Risk in 1983 and frequent media attention of where U.S. students ranked on international tests, active reform coalitions lobbied federal, state, and local officials to overhaul and restructure failing U.S. schools. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, initiated programs throughout the 1990s that used test scores and other outcome measures such as drop-out rates, percentages of students graduating high school, and numbers of graduates attending college to determine program effectiveness. Many states required tests and public reporting of student outcomes in attendance, dropouts, and high school graduates. With the passage of No Child Left Behind (2002), the federal government mandated states to use test scores and other outcomes to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing. Those that were failing had to be improved or closed.

By 2013, the entire vocabulary of effective schooling had shifted nearly 180 degrees from “inputs” to “outputs.” If an “input” like per-pupil expenditure is used, more often than not, it highlights discrepancies between high-expenditure districts with mostly low-income students scoring poorly on tests than similar districts spending fewer dollars but harvesting higher test scores. How much money is spent on schools—the criterion of effective schools used for nearly a century—has been replaced by ranking schools on the basis of test scores.

I do consider the three-decade focus on student outcomes as an overall plus since it directed public attention to those in-school factors that can be solidly linked to changes in student performance, albeit on the constricted measure of test scores. How schools are governed and organized, what knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, whether teachers work alone or collaborate, how teachers teach and students learn—all become factors that can be (and should be) connected to student outcomes including other measures beyond standardized test scores.

So the past three decades have accelerated attention upon what teachers do, how they are evaluated, and student outcomes, a movement that began in the late-1960s and now has coalesced into an—and here is my criticism—exclusive concentration on test scores supplemented occasionally by other student outcomes.[ii]

2.      Tapping non-traditional pools for new teachers and administrators.

With the growth of teacher education in colleges and universities throughout the 20th century, a single path to becoming a teacher certified to teach elementary and secondary school and become a principal and superintendent emerged. To become a teacher, one needed a bachelor’s degree with a major in a subject area that included state-required courses and a minimum amount of time in schools working as an apprentice teacher. Similar state requirements for principals and superintendents led to administrative credentials acquired from universities.

With the surge of school reform in the 1960s, teacher education institutions came under attack for monopolizing the market. Entrepreneurial educators seeking ways of improving urban schools and backed by federal and philanthropic funding looked to other sources for teachers. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, mid-career military, and women whose children were no longer in school became sources of new teachers. Most already had bachelors’ degrees so alternative paths to attaining certification beyond taking courses in a university-based credential emerged throughout the 1970s. District-based credential programs, ad hoc one-year university programs, and others began to supply a small but steady stream of recruits for urban and suburban schools. [iii]

With reform-driven coalitions seeking to overhaul U.S. schools in the 1980s and 1990s, teacher education programs came under increasing attack. More alternative paths to becoming a teacher, building on earlier programs, emerged such as Teach for America, The New Teacher project, and similar ventures elsewhere including new paths for principals and superintendents. These alternative paths for recruiting, training, and placing novices in hard-to-fill posts in urban schools have significantly challenged the worth of conventional university-based teacher education programs and traditional pathways for new teachers (and administrators) to enter schools. [iv]

3. The increase in parental choice of public schools—charters, magnets, portfolios of options—has expanded professional and popular views of successful schools.

Parents could choose among alternatives schools in the 1960s. In Arlington (VA) where I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s, parents could chose from non-traditional to traditional elementary and secondary schools, ones that still exist today. Ditto for many other districts. What the current expansion of parental choice has done is accelerate and extend choice into areas hitherto unexplored.[v]

For example, whatever one thinks of KIPP schools, there is little doubt that such schools have provided alternative  visions and proof that minority and poor children can succeed—much as an earlier generation of “effective schools” did in the 1980s and 1990s. The same can be said of charter school networks such as Aspire, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and “blended learning” schools where mixes of online and regular classroom teaching appeal to parents. New kinds of schooling have become possible that stretched far beyond alternatives in the 1960s and 1970s.

While that expanded parental choice has yet to satisfy pent-up demands for more high-achieving schools in many cities and while the aim of creating competitive pressure on urban districts to copy such models has yet to lead to altered teaching practices or duplication of such schools within districts, it is clear in 2013 that new structures for parent choice have, indeed, broadcast visions of what can be achieved with low-income and minority students and opened up options that simply had not existed earlier.

There have been costs, however. The idea of public charters and alternatives broadening the supply of schools to meet increasing demands from parents and the notion of customizing schools to appeal to certain groups of parents have led to schools being advertised in ways similar to other commodities in a market-driven society that can be purchased, used, and then tossed aside. Brand name schools as consumer products to be bought by individual parents mock the very point of tax-supported public schools—a public good–benefitting society. Moreover, in some districts where charters are a substantial portion of the public schools, neighborhood schools have died a slow death. [vi]

In examining these positive outcomes and assessing the costs involved, I would still judge their worth an overall plus. An “overall plus” acknowledges that perhaps the accelerated shift in defining quality from inputs to outputs has gone too far and too fast. Negatives appear in using student test scores to determine individual teacher effectiveness even when validity and reliability of such value-added measures is suspect. Negatives appear in the unceasing hype surrounding charter schools as the panacea for turning around low performing urban students even as many such schools fail for fiscal and academic reasons. Negatives appear in the constant rhetoric of business and civic leaders eager to transform U.S. schools on less dollars pointing out that it is not how much school boards have to spend but how it is spent that matters. These negatives are substantial and not to be swept aside as trivial. They argue for a better balance being struck between inputs, processes, and outcomes in assessing public schools.


[i]Milbrey McLaughlin, Evaluation and Reform: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title 1 (Santa Monica,CA: RAND Corporation, 1974); Stuart Purkey and Marshall Smith, “Effective Schools: A Review,” The Elementary School Journal, 1983, 83(4), pp. 426-452. Ronald Edmonds, “Effective Schools for the Urban Poor,” Educational Leadership, October 1979, pp. 15-24.

[ii] Linda Darling-Hammond, “Creating a Comprehensive System of Evaluating and Supporting Effective Teaching,” Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy, Stanford, CA. 2012.

 [iii] David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Bethany Rogers,” ‘Better’ People, Better Teaching: The Vision of the National Teacher Corps, 1965-1968,” History of Education Quarterly, 2009, 48(3), pp. 347-372.


[iv] Wendy Kopp, “Teach for America: Moving Beyond the Debate,” The Educational Forum, 1994, 58(2), pp. 187-192; David Labaree, “Teach for America and Teacher Education: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose,” Journal of Teacher Education, 2010, 61(1-2), pp. 48-55.

 [v] In Arlington (VA),  teachers founded HB-Woodlawn for students in grades 7-12 in the late 1960s and the Arlington Traditional School that began in 1978.  Both are open in 2013. See: http://www.apsva.us/domain/10#profiles Accessed May 28, 2012.

 [vi] Frederick Hess, “Does School Choice Work?” National Affairs, 2010, at: http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/does-school-choice-work accessed May 19, 2012; Jeffrey Henig, Rethinking School Choice; Limits of the Market Metaphor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 7, 2013