Arne Duncan and President Obama (By Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)
Arne Duncan and President Obama (By Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)

Education historian Larry Cuban notes that no matter what part of the political spectrum school reform originates, reformers keep making the same mistakes, decade in and decade out. What mistakes? Cuban explains in this post. Cuban was a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This appeared on Cuban’s on School Reform and Classroom Practice blog.

By Larry Cuban

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. So often, they seek similar goals–students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to enter and finish college or start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community– but split over which of the goals should have precedence and how to achieve the ones they prize.

Reformers fighting among themselves, of course, is hardly new.  For generations, traditionalists have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here). And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon or bane, and do charter schools help or hinder children and youth.

Yet whether school reforms come from the political right, center, or left championing  particular changes often leads the most well-intentioned of reformers to commit mistakes again and again. It is those repeated mistakes, generation after generation, that have been so obvious to historians, lay observers, and critics that I turn to now.

Charles Payne included in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change, a “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct.” He did so because he and other researchers ( I include myself), have had direct experience with each item in the pledge. This device of a constructed pledge seeks to alert wannabe reformers and active policymakers who authorize changes to think first, consider what else has been done, and not repeat the errors of the past:

Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

I will not overpromise.

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will not do anything behind the principal’s back.

I will not take part in any partisan or personal feuds.

I will not equate disagreement with “resistance.”

I will not put down other programs.

I will not expect change overnight.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

I will not try to scale up prematurely.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

I will give school people realistic estimates of how much time and money it takes to implement my program.

U.S. and international readers who have either participated in reforms or been the target of planned changes will nod their heads in agreement with one or more of these statements. Each reader may have his or her favorite part of the Pledge backed-up with a story to illustrate the folly reform-driven policymakers engage in when they plow ahead in mandating classroom changes.

While I agree with each item of the Pledge (and can offer additions as well), a few favorites are:

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

Much of my professional life has been devoted to teaching, writing, and researching  how policies get translated (or not) into classroom practice. And the inventory of errors and miscalculations that policymakers have made in formulating, adopting, and putting into practice the reform du jour.

If anything, I have focused a great deal on the importance of teacher involvement in making and implementing policy. David Tyack and I have written in Tinkering toward Utopia (pp. 134-142) about the crucial importance of teachers being seriously involved in thinking through and adapting school and classroom reforms directed at classroom teaching. We have argued that policymakers, past and present, too often have ignored what teachers think and do and have used a top-down, outside-in strategy to improve teaching and learning. Tyack and I have advocated an inside-out strategy to school reform–be it Common Core standards, buying and deploying new technologies, or restructuring low performing schools–where policymakers respect and involve teachers while creating the conditions that will help teachers implement desired reforms.

Listening and working with teachers to create and implement changes in classrooms will hardly rid the nation of current struggles between traditionalists and progressives over the degree to which public schools should serve the nation’s economic interests. Those battles, nay, even wars, mirror the deeper conflicts, past and present, over the purposes schools serve in a capitalist-driven democracy. The voices and experiences of teachers have been largely ignored in this recent thirty-year top-down, outside-in effort to make public schools an arm of the economy. To make lasting changes in teaching and learning, reform-driven policymakers have to figure out an inside-out strategy where teachers, the very people who put policy into practice, are working allies, not uninvolved enemies.