Posted in Course Syllabus, History, History of School Reform Class, School reform

Class on History of School Reform in the U.S.

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of School Reform in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to download it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share this with anyone you like.

All of the course materials are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, this includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

What are the central themes of this class? 

One is that reform of schooling is all about trying to improve it.  But whether a particular reform constitutes an improvement or a detriment to school and society rests in the eye of the beholder.  It all depends on what goals you want schools to accomplish, but the fact is that we don’t fully agree on what those goals are.  So reform is not a linear process leading inevitably toward a better future but a cyclical process resulting from efforts to accomplish alternative goals that are in tension with each other.  This produces a series on long-term pendulum swings between alternative visions of education.

A second theme is that examining the history of reform efforts can provide us with rich insight into the nature of the educational system.  Think of reforms as a series of experiments in school improvement.  How the system reacts to each of these experimental interventions tells us something important about how the system operates. 

One conclusion I have drawn from examining this process is that reformers have been overconfident about their understanding of what the problems with schooling are and therefore what solutions are required.  The fact is that a lot of reform efforts make schools worse.  By failing to understand the complexity of the system and the way it has evolved over time, reformers have frequently been throwing a monkey wrench into the works.  They try to solve one problem and in the process create another.  (This is one reason by Dick Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin call school reform “steady work.”) 

So one message the course sends to students is to show a little humility in your efforts to improve schools.  Learn more about how the system works before tinkering with it.  And consider the possibility that you might make things worse.

I hope you find this useful.

History of School Reform in the US

A Ten-Week Class

David Labaree


Twitter: @Dlabaree


Course Description

In this course, we will explore the history of school reform in the United States.  In only 10 weeks we will not be able to pursue a systematic study of this history from beginning to end, so instead we will explore a few of the major issues in this history and examine some pertinent cases of school reform to consider their consequences.  School reform is the intended change of schooling toward accomplishment of a valued goal.  One problem with reform, therefore, is intent.  Education is an extraordinarily complex social institution – involving a vast array of people, structures, and organizations – which means that reforming education in ways that make it produce the intended results is quite difficult.  Frequently reforms unintentionally generate new problems, which then require a new wave of reform to deal with them.  (This is why Elmore and McLaughlin call school reform “steady work.”)  A second problem with reform is that reasonable people can disagree over the goals of schooling, which means that what is a positive reform for some people may be a negative change for others.  The result is that your reaction to the success or failure of a reform effort depends on where you stand on its value, since the failure of a bad reform is a good thing.

Major Issues in the History of School Reform:  Framing our look at the history of reform will be two core books:  Tinkering Toward Utopia, which David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote in response to what they learned from teaching this class at Stanford for a number of years; and Someone Has to Fail, the book I wrote after teaching the same course for a decade.  We’ll read their book at the start of the class and read mine in pieces across the quarter.  A key theme in Tyack and Cuban is the paradox of school reform, in which it seems that schools are constantly being bounced around by a stream of reform efforts while at the same time they never seem to change.  They unravel this paradox by separating the history of reform into two interacting elements:  the noisy and often contradictory rounds of reform rhetoric that intrude upon schools at irregular intervals, and the slower and steadier process of evolutionary change in the structure of schooling that takes place largely outside of public view.  We will look at both aspects of reform, with special attention to assessing the outcomes of reform in the realm of the structure and practice of schooling itself.  My own book takes a more jaundiced view of reform, examining why the common school movement was such a success and later reforms were such failures.  In the early part of the book, the focus is on how the loosely coupled organization of schooling and the peculiar characteristics of teaching as a practice have put severe limits on the possibilities of reform.  In the latter part, I explore why the failure of reform is largely good news, protecting the system from damaging experiments based on misguided visions of what schools can do to solve social problems.  I argue that schools are a terrible way to solve most of the social problems that they are asked to address.  I also suggest that schools are doing what educational consumers want from them – providing us with social access and social advantage – even if they don’t do what reformers ask of them.

The class starts with the work of David Cohen, Richard Elmore, and Milbrey McLaughlin, who consider the organizational and pedagogical reasons it has been so difficult to change the basic grammar of schooling through deliberate reform efforts.  Next we read Tyack and Cuban to get an overview of the subject.  Then we look at my representation of the two most important reform movements in the history of American schools, one promoting the common school and the other pushing for progressive education.  Next we look at the rhetorics of school reform by examining a series of reform documents from the last 200 years.  We will then look in detail at the nature and variety of school reform rhetoric, through a close study of a few key reform texts over the years, including pedagogical progressivism, administrative progressivism, desegregation, the standards movement, and school choice.  In succeeding weeks, we explore the core factors that make the school system so resistant to reform and consider some of the kinds of reform practices that are more likely to bring about results.  Then we examine the system’s core social role, showing how the system continually adapts to pressure for greater social access by stratifying instruction in a way the preserves social advantage.  In week 8 we look at issues surrounding race and American schooling.  In week 9, we put the issue of school reform in the larger context of state-driven social change efforts, by focusing on James Scott’s framework, which examines why it has been so hard over the years for governments to impose order on complex social institutions such as schooling.  For the last class, we read the final chapters in my book, talk about what schools can do, and what they can’t do.

What This Class Is and Is Not About:  This class is intended to encourage you to think hard about the things that make educational reform so complex, contradictory, difficult, and often dysfunctional.  Its focus is on analyzing what happens to reform efforts between initial proposals and eventual outcomes.  This means that its aim is not to provide you with a how-to manual that will enable you to be a successful reformer.  I don’t think such a manual exists, and the dream of finding the one right way to fix things has done a lot of damage to schools over the years.  Instead, think of this class as an exercise in realism, a set of cautionary tales that I hope will help you locate your own efforts to improve schools within a useful historical framework.  The idea is to encourage students to develop a rich understanding of the American system of schooling – even a grudging respect for it – before trying to institute reforms, and to instill a little humility into people’s plans for saving the world with better schools.


This class was originally designed for master’s and doctoral students in education, but it has also works for graduate or undergraduate students in any field who are interested in learning about the nature of the American system of education.


Books:  The following books are used in the course; both are in print.  Also, pirated digital versions of both books can be found online.

Tyack, David & Cuban, Larry. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: Reflections on a century of public school reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

            Assigned Articles and Other Readings:  All other readings are available in PDF on the course Google Drive.

 Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.  For each week, I provide:  a link to tips for how to approach each week’s readings; links for access to the PDFs of these readings; a link to the class slides for that week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988).  Steady work.  Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan.

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Introduction.

Class slides for week 1:  slides 1a, slides 1b, slides 1c

 Week 2

The History of Educational Reform:  An Overview

Tips for week 2 readings

Tyack, David & Cuban, Larry. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: Reflections on a century of public school reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

The Two Major Reform Movements – Common School and Progressivism; Schooling and the Meritocracy

Tips for week 3 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 1, 2, and 3.

McClay, William M. (2016). A distant elite: How meritocracy went wrong. The Hedgehog Review 18:2 (Summer).

Class slides for week 3

Week 4

Factors That Make Reform Difficult

Tips for week 4 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 4 and 5

Meyer, John W. & Rowan, Brian. (1983). The structure of educational organizations. In Organizational environments: Ritual and rationality (pp. 71-97), edited by John W. Meyer and William R. Scott. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Cuban, Larry. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice? In Inside the black box of classroom practice: Change without reform in American education (pp. 155-187). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Check out Larry Cuban’s blog on school reform and classroom practice, always a good read:

Class slides for week 4

 Week 5

The Rhetorics of Reform:  Cases in Point

Read any four of these closely; lightly skim the rest.

Tips for week 5 readings

Common School Movement

Mann, Horace. (1848). Twelfth Annual Report to the State Board of Education of Massachusetts.  Selections.

Committee of 10

Committee of 10. (1893). Report to the National Council of Education.  Selections.

Pedagogical Progressivism

Dewey, John. (1902/1990). The child and the curriculum. In Philip W. Jackson (ed.), The school and society and the child and the curriculum (pp. 181-209). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Administrative Progressivism

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Standards Movement 1.0

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

School Choice

Walberg, Herbert J. & Best, Joseph L. (2003). Failure of the public school monopoly. In Education and capitalism: How overcoming our fear of markets and economics can improve America’s schools (pp. 3-32). Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.

Standards Movement 2.0

No Child Left Behind Act.  (2002).  Public Law 107-110.  Title I.

School Choice 2.0

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Making Educational Change

Tips for week 6 readings

Fullan, Michael G. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 2.

Fullan, Michael G. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 5.

Wolf, Shelby A., Borko, Hilda, Elliott, Rebekah L., & McIver, Monette C. (2000). “That dog won’t hunt!:” Exemplary school change efforts within the Kentucky reform. American Educational Research Journal, 37:2, 349-393.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995).  The silenced dialogue.  In Other people’s children (pp. 21-47).  New York: New Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

Balancing Social Access and Social Advantage

Tips for week 7 readings

Labaree, David F.  (2013).  Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114).  Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Cohen, David. K., & Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). The failure of high schools and the progress of education. Daedelus, 110 (Summer), 69-89.

Labaree, David F.  (1997).  The middle class and the high school.  In How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (pp. 92-109).  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria.  (1995).  But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Theory into Practice, 34:3, pp. 159-165.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Race and American Schooling

Tips for week 8 readings

Nieto, Sonia (1994).  Affirmation, solidarity, and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in multicultural education.  Multicultural Education, 1:4, pp. 9-12, 35-38.

Fine, Michelle. (1986). Why urban adolescents drop into and out of public high school. The Teachers College Record, 87(3), 393-409.

McWhorter, John. (2018). There’s nothing wrong with Black English. The Atlantic.

Recommended:  The Problem We All Live With.  (2015). This American Life Podcast (July 31).  Available in audio (below) and in transcript

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

Problems in Making Systematic Reform of Education

Tips for week 9 readings

Scott, James. (1999).  Seeing like a state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Pay close attention to Introduction, chapters 1-2 and 9-10.  Skim through the rest looking for examples.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10


Tips for week 10 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 6, 7, and 8.

Cohen, David K. (1990). A revolution in one classroom: The case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12:3, pp. 311-329.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

As a critical reader of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

If this is the way critical readers are going to approach a text, then as an analytical writer you need to guide readers toward the desired answers to each of these questions.

 Guidelines for Analytical Writing

 In writing papers for any course, keep in mind the following points.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
  2. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
  3. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
  4. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
  5. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
  6. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
  7. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems.  It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
  8. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
  9. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
  10. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
  11. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.


David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).

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