Educational goals School organization School reform

Larry Cuban — Reforming Again, Again, and Again

This blog post is a classic essay by Larry Cuban that explores the perennial problem of why efforts to reform schools in the US are steady work.  Why do we keep trying to make the same reforms, over and over again, with only minimal success?  The essay was published in Educational Researcher in 1990.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.

He looks at three recurring reform projects in particular:  the effort to shift pedagogy from teacher-centered to student-centered; the effort to balance continual demands for a curriculum that is more academic with demands for one that is more practical; and the effort to balance repeated efforts to push for an organizational structure for schooling that is more centralized or more decentralized.

After reviewing the standard explanations for these phenomena, he develops his own interpretation, which couples a political and institutional perspective.  The political problem is that schools are an expression of competing visions for what schools should be trying to accomplish.  These competing visions are not resolvable because they arise from durable values within American culture; we can manage the tension but not resolve it.  The institutional problem is that schools are tax-supported institutions with lay governance.  As such, schools continually need to appeal to a wide array of constituencies — taxpayers, parents, educators, and policymakers — without whose support the institution would lose its legitimacy and simply collapse.  

He tells a compelling story here.  Enjoy.


Reforming Again, Again, and Again


  Why do reforms return again and again? To illustrate that the question is valid, I offer three examples drawn from instructional, curricular, and governance planned changes that have returned more than once. To answer the question, I first examine the dominant explanation presented by researchers and policymakers: the lack of rationality in proposing and implementing planned change. I explore why the dominant explanation is flawed in its frequently used metaphors and analysis. I then offer alternative explanations for recurring reforms — a political and an institutional perspective harnessed together — to explain the puzzle of why reforms return. The point of this analysis is to enlarge the repertoire of explanations that researchers and policymakers use to examine potential and past reforms. The policymaking stakes run high for expanding the range of explanations because the questions of why reforms failed in the past and why they return go to the heart of present policy debates over whether federal, state, and district mandates to alter schooling will get past the classroom door.

Educational Researcher, Vol 19, No 1, pp 3-13

Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and begin again.

    • Andre Gide

At first glance, Gide’s quote sounds arrogant-much like saying that America is the land of the forgetful. I do not mean it that way. I interpret his words as a simple recognition of how most people either ignore or forget the past and need to be reminded that much, in­ deed, “has been said before” about why planned changes keep reappearing (Roth, 1988). To skeptics who may question whether reforms do, in fact, recur, I will offer three examples to make that point. Then I will explore how scholars have tried to explain why school reforms return. Finally, because these familiar explanations ignore or omit extensive evidence, I offer alternatives that embrace the counterevidence.

The point is to spotlight an issue-the inevitable return of school reforms — that has become so familiar as to enter the folk wisdom of policymakers and practitioners. Why is highlighting this issue important? Public officials’ eagerness to reform schools has continued unabated in this century, especially since World War II. Policymakers have ready explanations for why schools are so hard to change and why previous reforms have failed. These explanations, drawn from experience and biases, may or may not be informed by historical research or alternative ways of viewing the past. The state-engineered school reforms of the 1980s, for example, have sought a regeneration of the American economy. This vision was anchored in popular views of the recent past (the 1960s and 1970s), when educators supposedly had permitted academic standards to slip from their high position in earlier decades. Yet, a generation ago, school critics and policymakers in the 1950s argued that Deweyan ideologies had so permeated the public schools of the 1930s and 1940s that the curriculum had become virtually useless in providing the nation with scientists and engineers (Honig, 1985; Ravitch, 1983).

Reform visions often depend on a view of the past as a series of failures that killed a golden age of schooling. Critics’ claims about what happened in schools in earlier decades and policymakers’ assumptions about the past often become rationales for reform. Thus, the stakes for policymaking are high because such questions about why reforms failed in the past and why they return go to the heart of present policy debates over whether federal, state, and district man­ dates to alter schooling will ever get past the classroom door. I begin with three examples of recurring school reforms.

Classroom: Teacher-Centered Instruction

Much has been reported about the durability of teacher­ centered instruction, sometimes called “chalk-and-talk” or “frontal teaching,” even in the face of determined efforts to move classroom practices toward student-centered approaches (Applebee, 1974; Cuban, 1984; Goodlad, 1984; Hoetker & Ahlbrand, 1969; see also Applebee, Langer, & Mullis, 1987, Stake & Easley, 1978; Suydam, 1977; Westbury, 1973).

Currently, educators and parents are expressing intense interest in such instructional reforms as cooperative learn­ing, greater student participation in classroom tasks, and increased teacher and student use of computers. In each in­ stance, deeply held values about how teachers should teach, the role of content in classrooms, and how children should learn clash. Such debate over classroom pedagogy is familiar.

For many centuries, these two traditions of how teachers should and do teach have fired debates and shaped practice. What I called teacher-centered instruction has been variously labeled as subject centered, “tough minded” (James, 1958), “hard pedagogy” (Katz, 1968), and “mimetic” (Jackson, 1986). What I called student-centered instruction has been variously labeled child centered, “Tender minded” (James, 1958), “soft pedagogy” (Katz, 1%8), and “transformative” (Jackson, 1986). Both traditions of teaching are anchored in different views of knowledge and the relationship of teacher and learner to that knowledge. In teacher-centered instruction, knowledge is often (but not always) “presented” to a learner, who-and the metaphors from different cultures vary here-is a “blank slate,” a “vessel to fill,” or “a duck to stuff.” In student­ centered instruction, knowledge is often (but not always) “discovered” by the learner, who, again using different metaphors, is “rich clay in the hands of an artist” or “a flourishing garden in need of a masterful cultivator.”

In America, over a century and a half ago, pedagogical reformers condemned teacher-centered instruction with its emphasis on a textbook from which students recited already­ memorized information, and with teachers doing most of the talking to the entire group and asking rapid-fire questions. Criticism of teachers requiring students to memorize chapters of a text or the entire U.S. Constitution began to appear by the 1840s and 1850s. The metaphor of the mind as a garden (rather than a storehouse) reentered the debates on how teachers should teach (Katz, 1968). Motivating children through their interests introduced notions of the whole child well before the Civil War. Object teaching, an instructional innovation that leaned heavily on what students observed in the world, sought to arouse students’ curiosity. Schooling, these reformers argued, should be connected to the real world. Innovative educators introduced animals, flowers, and early photographs into classrooms. Recall also that the first kindergartens, with their heavy emphasis on play, cultivation of emotions and expression, and use of real-world objects, were founded Just after the Civil War (Dearborn, 1925; Shapiro, 1983).

The next generation of reformers also tried to end teacher-centered practices. Progressives, some of whom were deter­ mined to make schools into child-centered places, fought against regimented instruction as early as the 1870s and in­ to the 1900s. Child-centered progressives wanted more student involvement, achieve learning, informal relations bet­ ween teachers and students, and connections to the larger world outside the classroom. Innovative methods such as using small groups, activity projects, joint student-teacher planning of classroom work, and bringing into classrooms just-minted technologies of film and radio, were reformers’ ways of making early 20th century classrooms child centered. Few of these changes entered classrooms and remained as intended (Cremin, 1988; Goodlad, 1984; see also Cremin, 1961; Cuban, 1984).

Within the present moment of reform another generation of reformers is fighting against a technical, subject-centered form of instruction expressed in mastery learning, measurement-driven curricula, and bookkeeperlike accountability. Those researchers and practitioners who herald cooperative learning, active student involvement and the virtues of desktop computers that interact with student’s, bring new meaning to Yogi Berra’s observation: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Curriculum: The Academic and the Practical

It comes as no surprise, then, that the centuries-old traditions about the forms of teaching that are embedded in different values about knowledge and its relationship to teachers and students would have generated tensions about what content should be taught in schools. We are now in the full flush of state-driven reforms that aim for a common core of academic knowledge. We hear that 17-year-olds can’t figure out math problems, locate Siberia, or tell the difference between the Bill of Rights and a bill of sale. Higher graduation requirements now mandate that all students take more academic subjects. Yet this passion for a core of subject matter shared by all would be familiar to Horace Mann and other mid-19th-century school reformers who introduced the common school curriculum in the first eight grades. So, too, would the current passion for all students studying the same academic content be familiar to Harvard University President Charles Eliot, who chaired the Committee of Ten in 1893. That committee urged upon all high schools 4 years of English and 3 years of history, science, mathematics, and a foreign language. The committee further recommended that:

Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil as long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at which point his education is to cease. (Krug, 1961, p. 87)

Since then there have been repeated efforts to reduce the tension between having all students study academic sub­ jects for their liberal values and introducing technical or practical subjects that may reflect different futures in the job market. Progressives challenged the one best academic curriculum. They saw boredom, mechanical instruction, and huge numbers of students leaving school at ages 12 and 13. They were anxious to fit the curriculum to the student rather than the student to the curriculum. They redefined an equal education, from all students being forced to take the same practical academic curriculum to all students taking different courses to cultivate their varied interests, capacities, and vocational futures (Cremin, 1961; Tyack, 1974). The familiar comprehensive junior and senior high school, with its many courses of study, is a consequence of these turn-of-the­ century reformers’ success in altering the curriculum.

Severe criticism of these reforms came in the 1950s with another generation of change masters whose curricular values were captured in the titles of their books: Quackery in the Public Schools (Lynd, 1953), Educational Wastelands (Bestor, 1953), and Second-Rate Brains (Lansner, 1958). The National Science Foundation, established in 1950, launched major changes in science and math curricula led by university specialists. James B. Conant’s studies of secondary schools in the mid-1950s underscored the necessity for providing rigorous academic content for able, college-bound students (Silberman, 1971).

By the mid-1960s, however, broad political and social movements aimed at freeing the individual from bureaucratic constraints and helping ethnic and racial minorities end their second-class status had swept across schools. If desegregation, compensatory education, and magnet schools became familiar phrases, so did free schools, open classrooms, flexible scheduling, and middle schools. Many (but not all) of the previous decade’s curricular reforms evaporated by the early 1970s as efforts redoubled to differentiate courses and schools for low-income and minority children. Alternative schools, broadened vocational programs, and new curricula that blended academic and practical subjects dotted the school landscape in efforts to recapture students who had been either relegated to the margins of a secondary education or pushed out of schools (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985; Ravitch, 1983).

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, professional and lay activists were hearing a renewed call for traditional academic curricula in high schools. Demands for academic excellence were translated into more required subjects, a longer school year, more homework, and higher test scores. More students took chemistry, geometry, and foreign languages; fewer students registered for vocational courses. In California, a pacesetter among states in mandating core academic subjects for all students, voters responded warmly to State Superintendent Bill Honig’s message for traditional schooling. Honig, a graduate of an academically selective San Francisco high school, said that “a traditional education worked for us, why shouldn’t we give at least a good a shot at the common culture to today’s children,” (Honig, 1985, p. 55).

For almost a century, this enduring curricular tension between values embedded in academic and practical subjects has ebbed and flowed among groups of reformers whose versions of an equal education in a democracy have differed (Kliebard, 1986). The invention of the comprehensive high school and the junior high school in the first quarter of this century fashioned a workable compromise between these competing values that both professional educators and the lay public have since endorsed. Yet each time this debate over values has resurfaced, policymakers have refashioned that compromise by creating or deleting courses of study. As we enter the last decade of this century, this refashioning is again under way.

Centralizing and Decentralizing Authority

As a final example of the persistence of reform, consider the resiliency of the issue of centralizing and decentralizing authority in governing schools. Over a century ago, there were more than 100,000 (yes, 100,000!) school districts in the nation. In big cities, school boards had 50 or more members. Frequently, board members doled out teaching jobs to constituents. The system was seen as democratic and responsive to voters by its supporters but to critics-the good-government reformers of the progressive movement-the system was inefficient and corrupt. To bring order to this uncontrolled localism, progressive reformers proposed consolidating many tiny rural districts into larger ones and centralizing power into the hands of smaller, efficient school boards that would hire trained professionals to run the schools. (Cremin, 1961; Cronin, 1973; Katznelson & Weir, 1985; Reese, 1986; Tyack, 1974).

By the early 1960s, the wisdom of these solutions to governing schools had come under attack. Civil rights activists questioned the legitimacy of small school boards in big cities where officials were distant from the lives of minority children in poverty. Calls for schools and educators to be more responsive to their communities swelled into proposals for community control and administrative decentralization (Gittell, 1967; Levin, 1970). Values of participation and equity lay at the core of the impulse to decentralize authority to govern schools. Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities divided their school systems into districts with regional superintendents in charge. The 1-million student New York City system was divided into 32 community districts in an effort to shift power closer to parents (Ravitch, 1974). However, by the mid-1970s, the surge of interest in decentralization had spent itself.

In the 1980s, again, centralizing authority gained support from state policymakers who pursued school improvement through legislation. Within a few years, however, a slow recognition grew that state-driven reforms were not penetrating individual schools. Talk spread of unresponsive state bureaucracies incapable of improving local schools. New reform proposals to decentralize decision making were heavily influenced, first, by the research literature on the individual school as the unit of change and, second, by corporate executives who pointed to their organizations, where decision making occurred at the site at which products were made or services delivered (Kearns, 1988; Purkey & Smith, 1983). Policymakers introduced “school-site councils,” “school-based-management,” and ‘restructured schools.” In 1989, the Illinois legislature authorized Chicago to place each of its 595 schools under the management of an 11-member school-site council that included both parents and practitioners. New York City continues to seek ways of retaining its 32 community districts, but without the mismanagement and patronage that have seeped into the governance of a few districts (Daniels, 1988). So, again, the tension persists between the values embedded in centralization and decentralization in governing schools.

In offering these three instances of reforms resurfacing repeatedly in the 20th century, I have set the stage for the central question: Why do these reforms keep reappearing?

Why Do Reforms Appear Again and Again?

I begin with an explanation anchored in the rational model of organizational behavior, because it is widely shared by those interested in school improvement. Readers of Educational Researcher are familiar with the common practice, among some academics, of bashing rational explanations as ill fitted to the realities of organizations and their environments. Bashing is usually a preface for offering a favored explanation that will, the author believes, convince readers. This is no such preface. I offer a brief examination of the rational model of organizational action because it is pervasive among policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers.

The need to rationalize organizational behavior can be seen in sustained attempts at district and state levels to align curricula with texts, tests, and instructional goals; it can be seen in the accelerating passion for more testing at state and national levels; it can be seen in the spread of classroom evaluation practices drawn from teacher effectiveness research and patterns of systematic curriculum construction laid down by academics who see education as a science; it can be seen in the fickle love affair between the federal government’s initial support and later shrunken enthusiasm for research and development centers and laboratories and, finally, it can be seen in the passion for scientifically conducted evaluation studies to prove, once and for all, that a particular teaching method, machine, or curriculum improves student performance. The rational model may be a favored target for abuse in academic journals and studies, but it is alive and well in the world of school reform (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Honig, 1985; Kliebard, 1975, 1979, 1986; Slavin, 1989; Timar & Kirp, 1988).

A Rational Explanation for Recurring Reforms

The return of school reforms suggests that the reforms have failed to remove the problems they were intended to solve. Analysts ask: Are we attacking the right problem? Have the pol1C1es we adopted fit the problem? Have practitioners implemented the policies as intended? Another set of questions concern whether the solutions designed to correct the problems identified by policymakers were mismatched. Right problems, wrong solutions? or vice versa? Are we dealing with the problem or the politics of the problem? Other analysts seeking a rational basis for policy examine the thought processes of policymakers. What analogies and metaphors do they use as a basis for forming policy? For example, historically policymakers have used business firms and their perceived efficiency as desirable models for schools to copy. In the early decades of this century, reformers urged corporate models of governance and managerial techniques on public schools (Callahan, 1962). in the 1980s, it has been common for school funding to be reframed from a cost to an investment in “human capital.” Also, explicit comparisons between school sites, as places where services are delivered, and corporate profit centers; where both autonomy and accountability reign, have been common. District and state policymakers increasingly use the language of corporate board rooms (Committee for Economic Development, 1985).

Take the current passion for policies that encourage choice. Broadening parent choice in public schools is a solution. What are the problems that this reform is supposed to solve? To listen carefully to policy makers who promote this reform, choice will, in the works of Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich, “improve students’ academic skills and attitudes and lower the dropout rate” (Perpich, 1989). According to Perpich and other advocates around the country, permitting parents to choose the school they wish their children to attend introduces competition where a monopoly once existed. “By allowing market forces to work in our educational system, families are empowered to make discerning choices about their schools. And they compel schools to be more responsive to the people they serve” (Perpich, 1989). Buried in the thinking of choice advocates is the analogy of the marketplace, where competition for private goods and services leads to both consumers and businesses profiting. Policies of choice are aimed at ending substantial problems within public schools. How these reform policies of choice will end low academic performance and high dropout rates, however, is unclear. The connection is mysterious, although the warm public response to policies of choice and their potent image argue compellingly that there is a mother lode of political gold to be mined there. Some researchers and analysts have tried to disentangle the values, arguments, and issues that mark the solution of choice to the perceived problem of inadequate public schooling (Elmore, 1987; Kerchner & Boyd, 1987; Raywid, 1985). Few, however, have yet distilled the linkages between choice and its impact on school-site decision making, staff morale, the remaking of curriculum, and the delivery of instruction. Citing exemplars of choice where schooling has improved is useful, but as incomplete as showing Chartres Cathedral to a novice architect and saying: “Here is what can be done.”

Those who believe in rational approaches to organizing change would argue that if policymakers only asked tough questions, thought through issues analytically, examined their beliefs, or avoided playing the politics of the problems while carefully using available research findings, school reforms would not keep returning like bad pennies. This rational explanation suggests that policymakers are in control. They have both the knowledge and technical expertise within their grasp to solve problems Just like surgeons doing heart bypass operations.

Reforms return because policymakers fail  to diagnose problems and promote correct solutions. Reforms return because policymakers use poor historical analogies and pick the wrong lessons from the past (Katz, 1987). Reforms return because policymakers fail, in the words of Charles Silberman two decades ago, “to think seriously about educational purposes” or question the “mindlessness” of schooling (Silberman, 1971, pp. 10-11). Reforms return because policymakers cave in to the politics of a problem rather than the problem itself. Reforms return because decision makers seldom seek reliable, correctly conducted evaluations of program effectiveness before putting a program into practice (Slavin, 1989). In short, were policymakers to pursue a rational course of analysis and decision making and, where fitting, use research and evaluation results properly, there would be no need for the same solutions to reenter the policy arena. The rational explanation is compelling but flawed; it is useful but limited; 1t is popular but often criticized. Why?

The rational explanation frequently leans heavily on two images: the pendulum and the cycle. Policymakers who believe that history repeats itself or who say that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat its errors often use the pendulum image. They tend to be critical of swings in national moods about schooling. Few question the existence of such periodic movement; it is their unpredictability in when they begin and end that upsets those deeply interested in rationalizing organizational behavior. There are, unfortunately, at least two unexamined flaws in the popular metaphor.

    First, the pendulum swing seemingly returns exactly to the same spot it left. Although there is motion, there is no change. Things predictably return to what they were at a prior time. The facts, however, about both the pendulum and lack of change undercut the image. Physicists have discovered that even in the supposed orderly swing of a laboratory pendulum there are microscopic erratic movements that suddenly erupt without apparent explanation and that the disorder creates complex patterns unseen before. Even a simple pendulum swing was far more complicated than anticipated (Gleick, 1987). If physicists were surprised about the pendulum, ahistorical policymakers would similarly be surprised about the vast changes that have occurred in schooling over the last century and a half of pendulum swings.

The expansion of schooling to embrace all groups of children, regardless of background, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries is a trend-line of almost revolutionary pro­ portions that has marked the United States as unique in the family of nations. The introduction and spread of the graded elementary and secondary school in the mid-19th century and the virtual elimination of the one-room schoolhouse by the late 20th century were dramatic changes that altered the face of public schooling in this nation. By the middle of the 20th century, schools contained libraries, lunchrooms, space for health clinics, industrial and manual training shops, and playgrounds; they were very different places than schools in 1900. Large, politically appointed school boards gave way to small, professionally oriented ones; untrained teachers and administrators were replaced by state-certified and professionally trained practitioners; the classical academic curriculum expanded into varied curricula supplemented by a stunning array of extracurricular activities; class sizes of 50 and more fell to half that. All of these changes occurred within less than a century (Cremin, 1988; Kaestle, 1983; Tyack, 1974). No, the image of a pendulum swing, a stable glide from one point to another without alteration, fails to account for either the erratic motions of such a swing or the enormous changes in public schooling that have occurred over the last century.

   The second flaw in the pendulum metaphor is that the image requires a powerful external force beyond the control of policymakers and practitioners to set the pendulum in motion. After all, a playground swing just doesn’t start moving by itself; something has to give it a shove. Is it the Russians launching a space vehicle? The Japanese economy outperforming that of the United States? The need for a potent outside force to get the pendulum moving suggests helplessness on the part of supposedly rational policymakers to either halt the swing or redirect it. The pendulum metaphor seemingly accounts for the same reforms returning but ends up weakening the rationality of policymakers by suggesting how impotent they are in reshaping the environment in which schools are embedded.

If the pendulum metaphor contains flawed thinking about rationalizing school organizations, what about the cycle image? The image of a cycle has a rich history in human affairs. Philosophers, historians, and informed observers have generated complex images that speak of ancient civilizations and golden ages arising and disappearing and of cycles that ebb and flow, accumulating a residue of change over time (Dewey & Dakin, 1947; Eliade, 1954; Gould, 1987). Cycles, of course, do not have to go through preset evolutionary stages like an egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly. Cycles can be compared to upward or downward spirals or waves that vary in amplitude and frequency, or the irregular growth of a coral reef. Nonetheless, cycles appeal to the rational mind with their hint of predictability. Because people, organizations and nations go through phases of a cycle, the next stage can be anticipated.

One of the most highly developed arguments for recurring cycles that can be easily applied to schooling has been set forth by two historians-father and son-named Arthur Schlesinger (senior and junior). Both have gone so far as to predict when things will change from one chord of a national rhythm to another (Schlesinger, 1986). I analyze their argument because the cyclical image is so deeply embedded in the minds of practitioners, researchers, and policymakers who work within the rational tradition that it is worthwhile to take one of the more popular versions and examine it.

Schlesinger argues as follows. In most democracies, economic factors such as level of unemployment and economic growth determine to a great degree who gets elected. Electoral changes produce public officials with ideas that can be labeled in this society as conservative or liberal insofar as what role the government should play in the lives of citizens. For example, liberals, in their eagerness to use government to solve social and economic problems, pile up reforms. The first two decades of this century belonged to liberals in the progressive movement. But in the wake of World War I, reform energies flagged. Although progressive sentiment still persisted during the 1920s, the decade became overtly conservative under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and the “politics of public purpose gave way to the politics of private interest” (Schlesinger, 1986, p. 32). Becoming rich and pursuing what is best for each person became prized outcomes. The concern for individual interests in the 1920s evaporated with the onset of the Great Depression, when liberals acted through the federal government to minimize the worst effects of the economic disaster. Impulses to help the poor, aged, and helpless were transformed into social programs. Reform energies, however, were redirected by World War II, and they ebbed in the immediate postwar years.

In the Eisenhower years, as in the 1920s, private interests surged forward and public action receded. The search for racial justice in the 1960s triggered the next turn, when liberals under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought public ways of solving national ills in the New Frontier and the Great Society. By the early 1970s, Americans had experienced the trauma of Vietnam, race riots, the fall of a president, and campus violence. During the rest of the decade and into the 1980s, according to Schlesinger, a return to cultivating private interests and self-gratification reached its peak in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

What about the next decade? Because Schlesinger believes that these two-phase cycles of liberal and conservative change in values alternate every generation of 15 or more years, he predicts that liberals will return.

At some point, shortly before or after the year 1990, there should come a sharp change in the national mood and direction-a change comparable to those bursts of innovation and reform that followed the accessions to office of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, of Franklin Roosevelt m 1933 and of John Kennedy in 1961. (Schlesinger, 1986, p. 47).

Note that this two-phase cycle is very close to a pendulum swing-conservative to liberal and back again every decade and a half, according to Schlesinger. Whereas most biological or business cycles may have three, four, or more phases, this one has two, making it almost indistinguishable from the swing of a pendulum (Dewey & Dakin, 1947). Nonetheless, applying this cyclical explanation to school­ mg is common; (Carnoy & Levin, 1985; James & Tyack, 1983; Kaestle, 1972, 1985; Katz, 1987; Kirst & Meister, 1985.

Kliebard, 1988; Presseisen, 1985; Slavin, 1989).

To do so is easy enough if one sees the struggle over reforms as conflicts over values in both the larger society and schools. When value shifts occur in the larger society, schools accommodate. In the years when conservative values stressing private interests ran strong, for example, in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s, schools were concerned with producing individuals who could compete. Hence, high academic standards, orderliness, efficiency, and productivity were prized in schools. In years when politically liberal values dominated, such as the early 1900s, 1930s, and the 1960s, concerns for minorities, the poor, and other outsiders prompted school reforms that broadened student access to programs, linked schools to work in the community, and reduced academic achievement gaps between groups of students. Each political turn of the cycle left a residue within schools’ when the rhythm shifted.

What is appealing about this version of a value-driven two-phase cycle that accrues changes as its political rhythm shifts periodically is the power to account for both stability and change and for recurring moods of pessimism and optimism. According to Schlesinger, liberals and conservatives introduce programs that further their values and stimulate optimism; many programs disappear but some leave traces. Yet, schools have changed over the decades. Moreover, reforms do return as the cycle shifts but they wear different clothes. Stability exists amid change.

As seductive as this explanation is, still it fails to account for some of the more complex aspects of schooling. For example, take the centralizing of authority that enshrines the values of control and efficiency. Squeezing everything possible out of every tax dollar spent and making sure that it is spent properly competes with prized values of citizen participation m decisions and professional autonomy that are at the core of decentralizing authority. One could argue that these value-loaded issues are triggered by larger political and economic events and that Schlesinger’s cycles even fit here. I think not.

At the turn of the century, political liberals pushed centralizing authority in school boards and professionalizing educators as a cure for inefficient school district rule. But in the 1960s, liberals pushed decentralizing authority as a remedy for distant bureaucrats who were unconcerned about what happened in each school. In the 1980s, both political liberals and conservatives have favored state-driven reforms that have made some state legislatures super school boards mandating tightly worded rules for students and teachers. Moreover, in the last few years of the same decade, both liberals and conservatives have endorsed school-site councils, school-based management, and plans that permit teachers to have a much larger voice in managing schools. In short, the political cycle of liberal-conservative, of public versus private interests, simply does not fit the evidence (Carnegie, Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986; Committee for Economic Development, 1985).

Nor do the swift changes that have swept across the educational landscape since 1945 fit shifts among political liberals and conservatives. Since the end of World War II, unrelenting criticism about inadequate school buildings, flabby curricula, slipping academic standards, and inferior teaching have appeared regularly in national and regional media. Barrage after barrage of public flak produced school reforms even before votes were counted every 2 or 4 years. Consider how both political liberals and conservatives have endorsed the effective schools movement and have pressed for new programs aimed at students labeled at risk for different yet convergent reasons. In short, on many of the issues that seized public attention and commanded policymakers’ reactions, political liberals and conservatives often stood as one (Committee for Economic Development, 1985; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; Rav1tch, 1983).

How, then, in the face of evidence that does not fit a rational explanation harnessed to political cycles, can I make sense of the periodic return of similar reforms? To broaden the historical analysis of reform over the last century, I offer alternative explanations that are basically hunches. Because there is so much uncritical reliance on the rational explanation, with its artillery of pendulum and cycle images even when counterev1dence is available, few policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have explored alternative interpretations and metaphors. I want to enlarge the discussion by offering two other explanations. In the interest of full disclosure, I label both as speculative.

Value Conflicts: A Political Perspective

Many issues that reappear, such as the struggle over teacher-centered instruction, the academic and practical curriculum, and the centralizing of authority, are value conflicts. When economic, social, and demographic changes create social turmoil, public opinion shifts. Particular values receive renewed attention and get translated into policies and programs by individuals, media, interest groups, and political coalitions. Much pressure is placed on schools to align with public shifts in values. Because tensions between such competing social values as equitable income distribution and allowing individuals to accumulate wealth without restraint or between democratic participation and efficiency are already embedded in schools, they rise to the surface when external events trigger individuals and groups to voice policy differences and demand change in schools (Guthrie, 1987).

Such value differences, as they become transformed by media and political coalitions into pressure on schools to change, can seldom be removed by scientifically derived solutions. Although in this culture the value of a solution for every problem, a pill for every disease, is quite strong and highly prized, there are no antibiotics for struggles over values. Value conflicts, then, are not problems to be solved by the miracles of a science of schooling; they are dilemmas that require political negotiation and compromises among policymakers and interest groups-much like that which occurs in the larger society. There 1s no solution; there are only political tradeoffs.

But why do Americans turn to schools in times of social turmoil? Scholars have offered at least two answers to this question. One is that elite classes or dominant groups in the society that set directions for major social policies charge the public schools with the responsibility for solving national ills. These elite groups do so because the sources of those ills are deeply rooted in the structures of the society and, in the major problems of poverty, racism, drug addictions, and environmental destruction were addressed directly, grave upheavals in economic, social, and political institutions would occur. If schools work on these tasks, slow improvement in the next generation might happen without untoward dislocat10ns (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Grubb & Lazerson, 1982; Katz, 1987; Perkinson, 1968).

A second answer has been the enduring faith that Americans have placed in schools as an engine of social and individual improvement. Such faith automatically turns policymakers’ attention to schools as a tool of reform when social problems emerge. To Andrew Carnegie the faith was complete: “Just see wherever we peer into the first tiny springs of the national life, how this true panacea for all the ills of the body politic bubbles forth — education, education, education.” Also to President Lyndon Johnson: “The answer for all our national problems comes down to one single word: education .” With this faith in the power of schools to restore national health and permit social mobility, debates about school reform become, indirectly, discourses about the future of society (Cremin, 1988; Meyer, 1986; Perkinson, 1968).

Simply put, when an impulse for reform rises, crests in the larger society, and then spills over the schools, the conflicting values buried deep within schools also receive attention. The political processes already existing in a decentralized system of schooling produce interest groups and individuals perennially pressing schools to alter what they do. The values of these groups and individuals receive renewed attention for a time until public interest fades.

We are in the midst of a series of reform waves now. In the 1980s, spurred by huge deficits and fears of major economic losses to foreign markets, public and corporate officials have reasserted the values of economic efficiency and competitiveness as one to which schools must now heed. Another national crisis has been announced and the schools are rescuers of America’s economic vitality. Expectations have risen. Slogans have flourished (“school-based management,” “restructuring schools,” and “investment in schools”), and programs are under way. Old com­ promises over school curricula and academic standards are being renegotiated. Change is in the air (David, 1989; Guthrie, 1985; Kearns, 1988; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

Yet efficiency in schooling has been a golden phrase — a secular Grail — to educators for well over a century. Submerged at times but never far from the surface, the search for increased productivity with fewer resources has fueled dreams of vocational schooling for all and classroom technologies such as film, radio, and instructional television. As a result of the drive for more efficient operations, educators have borrowed repeatedly from their corporate cousins (Callahan, 1962; Cuban, 1986; Lazerson & Grubb, 1974).

The waves of intense public attention to schools reappear because these conflicting values are buried deep within the economy, political processes, and, of course, schools. When economic stability, shifts in population, and social change uncover tensions, individual champions of particular values and coalitions of interest groups surface. Media and other groups translate the unrest into recommended policies for schools to enact. Waves occur on the surface and, in some instances, programs, like the skeletons of long-dead sea animals, get deposited on the coral reef of schooling.

Within each series of waves breaking on the shores of public attention, there are smaller ones. There is the mini­ wave of rising and falling expectations; there is the mini­ wave of policy talk where new phrases are coined and become part of reformers’ vocabularies only to fall into disuse; there is the mini-wave of the change process itself, where talk leads to some policies getting adopted, partially or wholly implemented, and, in the case of a few, incorporated into organizational practices. As mini-waves within the larger wave action, they overlap, often lagging behind or forging ahead of a companion mini-wave producing, over time, one large wave of public attention that comes to a close as another begins (See Figure 1) (Cuban, 1986; Downs, 1972; Kaestle, 1972; Meyer, 1986).

The alternating waves of optimism-pessimism used to span 5 to 10 or more years; however, with the spread of instant media the entire pattern, with its mini-rhythms including the final deposit of a residue in vocabulary, procedures, or an occasional program, may take a few years or even less.

But why do these waves of school reform, with their struggle over value differences, keep reappearing? I have suggested two answers: Dominant social groups getting public

schools to work on national ills, rather than risking major dislocations in the society, by addressing directly major social problems; and the shared, enduring beliefs that most Americans have about schools promoting social mobility, creating national harmony, and building solid citizens. Whether as a result of the actions of dominant classes or a durable faith in the power of schooling, the consequences are the same: Policymakers turn religiously to school-based solutions for national problems. If society has an itch, schools get scratched. Or do they?

The nation has no central ministry of education. There is as yet no required national curriculum or test as there is in the rest of the world, where national governments have introduced compulsory public schooling. There is a U.S. Department of Education, but its responsibilities for funding and managing the public schools of the nation are close to nil. It defines the national interest in schooling, collects in­ formation, disburses funds to the states, sponsors research, and monitors compliance with laws. Operational responsibility rests with the 50 states. Only one (Hawaii) is a total unit. In the other 49 states, authority for operating schools is delegated to more than 15,000 school districts. With three levels of governance, any single school crisis will be viewed differently by various constituencies. In such a decentralized yet national system of schooling that encourages plural interest groups and much prodding of professionals to alter what they do, it should come as no surprise that many reforms seldom go beyond getting adopted as a policy. Most get implemented in word rather than deed, especially in classrooms. What often ends up in districts and schools are signs of reform in new rules, different tests, revised organizational charts, and new equipment. Seldom are the deepest structures of schooling that are embedded in the school’s use of time and space, teaching practices, and classroom routines fundamentally altered even at those historical moments when reforms seek those alterations as the goal. The itch may be real but the stroking is gentle. Why?

Some scholars believe that recurring reforms rarely transform schools and classrooms because they were never intended to do so. These scholars argue that schools are used to solve social ills because the capitalist system is driven by ideological imperatives that permeate all institutions in the culture. Schools, whether they like it or not, are instruments to express and maintain, not alter, those ideologies. Thus, the overt and covert ways that schools are organized, the curriculum is ordered, and teachers go through their daily teaching routines are what they are sup­ posed to be. Some reforms are for display, not fundamental change. Other reforms that strengthen prevailing beliefs do get implemented (Apple, 1977, 1982; Bernstein, 1977; Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Denscombe, 1982; Popkewitz, 1988; Wills, 1977).

Given these views, school reform rhetoric, policies, and actions are either items to be managed and packaged in such ways as to reinforce things as they are or to tinker with innovations that will leave untouched the regularities of schooling. What schools do and what teachers do in their classrooms are what they are supposed to do. They perform the social functions assigned by the reigning ideologies and elite classes. Like students, the teachers, administrators, superintendents and school boards are mere participants in a process willed by larger forces. Schools and classrooms go largely unchanged, although the noise and motion do give an appearance of fundamental reform. Scholars adhering to this view believe that fundamental school reform is, at best, a futile exercise and, at worst, a sham.

Although there is much that I have found both useful and persuasive in these views, there is also evidence that remains unexplained. For example, these scholars argue that a tight coupling exists between the society and its schools­ society itches and the schools scratch-implying further that within states, districts, schools, and classrooms similarly strong linkage exists to explain why most people end up doing pretty much the same today as they did yesterday. Yet there is contrary evidence.

There have been many changes of varying dimensions and depth in school organization, facilities, governance, fun­ ding, and curriculum over the last century: the instances, infrequent though they are, when teachers and administrators have made fundamental changes in their schools and classrooms; the variations in classroom teaching and learning that exist in the same school and within the district-even after allowing for the ubiquitous commonalities; the ways that schools blunt, sidestep, and revarnish reforms imposed by others; and the impact that students and teachers have on the curriculum. All of these examples suggest that schools as institutions and practitioners, collectively and individually, take initiatives and influence their surroundings (Cremin, 1988; Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Hansot & Tyack, 1988; Kirst & Meister, 1985; March & Olsen, 1984; Smith, Dwyer, Prunty & Kleine, 1988; Tyack, 1974). For these reasons, I find it worthwhile to explore another perspective that builds on the political perspective of values conflict discussed above and attempts to explain why reforms recur even if they seemingly have little impact on what goes on in schools and classrooms.

Institutional Perspective

What makes schools different from nonpublic organizations is that they are tax supported and under lay governance. These two deep structural traits mark schools as unique organizations. To retain support from their constituencies who provide children and dollars, state and district systems display multiple and conflicting goals, many of which are stated ambiguously, making them most difficult to measure. Individuals and groups move in and out of the organization, participating as voters, parents, volunteers, advocates, and critics; the traffic in and out of the organization is constant. Without support from these participants and the constituent groups within its surroundings, a school district would lose its legitimacy and eventually lose its clientele (March & Olsen, 1976; Meyer & Rowan, 1978; Pincus, 1972).

So school organizations try to satisfy what their constituencies believe is proper for schools. The public expects teachers to be certified to teach. The public expects that mathematics offered in the eighth grade will prepare 14-year-olds for algebra in the ninth grade. The public expects transcripts of high school graduates to be considered by colleges. The public expects a principal to be qualified to supervise a staff of 50 teachers and a superintendent to be able to put a budget together for the school board. School system policymakers, in turn, to retain the endorsement of their community, make sure that all of its personnel meet state requirements for their occupations, schools are ac­ credited, textbooks come from state-approved lists, and third graders practice cursive writing like other third graders in nearby districts do. If a significant number of constituencies define a problem in schools as, for example, too many teenagers take drugs, before too long school authorities will have introduced a special drug program or expanded the existing one and appointed a district office coordinator for drug education. In this manner, the school organization signals external groups that it is responsive to their values. If the public loses confidence in the school organization’s capacity to act like a system with these rules and classifications, political support and funding shrink swiftly (Meyer, 1980; Meyer & Rowan, 1978).

The unique organizational characteristics of the tax-supported public bureaucracy governed by lay policymakers merge with the imperative to retain the loyalty of the system’s constituencies. Both help to explain schools’ obvious vulnerability to pressures for change from external groups. When value conflicts arise and external pressure accelerates, both get wedded to an organizational drive for retaining the support of critical supporters; such conditions push school districts to try novel programs, join regional and national efforts to improve curriculum, and adopt innovative technologies so as to be viewed as worthy of continued endorsement. The combined political and institutional perspectives also help to explain why districts in different parts of a state, region, and the nation resemble one another in structures, roles, and operations. A district or school that is substantially different from other districts or schools runs the risk of having questions raised about its credibility (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Pincus, 1972, Rowan, 1982).

But a school system is also responsible for maintaining order, instructing the young, and producing students who have learned. To ensure that the organization is both efficient and effective, the district has a bureaucracy to coordinate and control what occurs in classrooms and elsewhere in the system. If district policymakers face outward to their publics, administrators face inward. They make sure that there are tight linkages between external requirements and district rules in whether the staff meets state and local criteria for employment, the standards set by regional accreditation associations, and the proper courses necessary for students to attend prestigious colleges. District operations are tightly coupled in meeting legal requirements for bids and purchases, av01ding conflicts of interest, and spending state and federal funds. These linkages are monitored to ensure that they remain intact. Any departures from policy and procedures are scrutinized. Because these categories signal the public that the schools are really schools and are doing what they are supposed to do, careful attention is paid to these items (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Meyer & Rowan, 1978).

The tight coupling vanishes, however, when it comes to the core of schooling; classroom instruction. The transaction among a teacher, students, and content is the basic reason for compelling parents to send their children to school. To determine whether the goals of the district or state systems are being met in the classroom, some level of oversight and control would be expected given the importance attached to the classroom. Although there are ties between classroom and school between school and district office, there is no tight coupling here as elsewhere in the organization (Bidwell, 1965; Cuban, 1984; Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Meyer & Rowan, 1978).

Inspections and tests are the standard bureaucratic tools used to control what teachers do in their classrooms. But teachers work as solo practitioners, isolated from their col­ leagues. They teach for long periods of time without inspection from their supervisors. Administrators, who depend on teachers to achieve any degree of school effectiveness, basically trust their teachers’ craft. They do formally evaluate teacher performance a few times a year, but both parties to the process report that the occasions seem ritualistic even when high stakes are involved. Virtually the same lack of inspection by superintendents, evaluation of performance, and isolation mark the lot of the principal. Similarly, superintendents, who depend on principals to achieve improved school performance, have to trust principals’ judgment and skills. The bureaucratic mechanism of inspection exists on paper, but it functions more as a ritual than as a tool for coordination and control (Bidwell, 1965; Dornbusch & Scott, 1975d; Dreeben, 1973; Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Weick, 1976).

Testing is the other bureaucratic means for controlling what occurs in classrooms. Teachers give their students tests frequently. Most of these are teacher made or linked to text­ book assignments. Seldom, if ever, are the results of these tests used to gauge teacher productivity. Although standardized achievement tests are ubiquitous, it is rare that student scores are used to assess individual teacher performance. Student scores are aggregated at the school and district levels. Because the practice of publishing test scores school by school has become fairly common in cities and many suburbs, there has been growing pressure to hold principals responsible for the  school’s academic performance, as measured by standardized achievement tests. Although there have been such pressures and, in particular locations, such accountability may be formalized, it has yet to become general practice. So, without either the usual bureaucratic tools of inspection or tests to determine instructional productivity, the daily delivery of instruction is virtually decoupled from administration and policymaking (Duke & Imber, 1985; Meyer & Rowan, 1978; Resnick & Resnick, 1985).

Decoupling classroom teaching from administration and policymaking in the organization occurs because policy­ makers and administrators need to retain the support of practitioners while maintaining the district’s credibility in the eyes of the families that send children to school, citizens who pay taxes, and state and federal bureaucracies that monitor district actions, teachers, students, and others. Without credibility, there is no chance of the schools being viewed as successful. Without teachers’ support, few de­ sired outcomes can be achieved. Thus, a bargain is struck over the degree of inspection, how it is carried out, and its consequences (often encased in a contract when unions are present); infrequent and procedurally protected inspection is exchanged for teacher support (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Meyer & Rowan, 1978; Weick, 1976).

Here, then, is an organizational perspective stitched together from the work of a number of researchers that begins to explain why certain school activities and teaching are insulated from externally driven pressures for fundamental changes. The decoupling of instruction from administration and policymaking achieves an autonomy and isolation that teachers find satisfying. They can introduce innovative materials designed by outside consultants, especially if they see the value of their use in class. They can alter the content they teach, even if it is mandated by a state department of education, if they already believe that the topics and content will be in the students’ best interest. They also have limited freedom, drawn from their isolation as solo practitioners, to ignore and modify these directives. And they can initiate novel changes. There are limits, of course, on the extent to which principals and teachers can change what occurs in their schools and classrooms, limits set by those very same constituencies whose support of the school is needed. Choice is situationally constrained.

Concluding Comments

Since there is no persuasive explanation for the persistence of reform that goes beyond the rational explanation and 15-year cycles proposed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., which neglected counter-evidence, I have set forth two other explanations for the reappearance of reforms. These explanations may sound plausible, but they are, after all, only claims, not facts. No body of evidence about past or cur­ rent reforms yet exists to determine whether these claims have merit.

Reforms do return again, again, and again. Not exactly as before or under the same conditions, but they persist. It is of even greater importance that few reforms aimed at the classroom make it past the door permanently. It is important to policymakers, practitioners, administrators, and researchers to understand why reforms return but seldom substantially alter the regularities of schooling. The risks involved with a lack of understanding include pursuing problems with mismatched solutions, spending energies needlessly, and accumulating despair. The existing tools of understanding are no more than inadequate metaphors that pinch-hit for hard thinking. We can do better by gathering data on particular reforms and tracing their life history in particular classrooms, schools, districts, and regions. More can be done by studying reforms in governance, school structures, curricula, and instruction over time to determine whether any patterns exist. And we can do better by examining carefully the alternative explanations offered here and elsewhere and measuring them against the data. If it occurs to readers that I end with a plea for rationality, that is, serious thinking about rational and nonrational organizational behavior, so be it. If we do not heed the plea, we will continue to mindlessly speculate, and as Gide observed: “Since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and begin again.”


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