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Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform

School reform has been one of the most hotly debated topics for the better part of the last century. Parents, teachers, business leaders, and U.S. presidents have all pronounced their prescriptions for repairing the American education system. Last year, when HGSE selected four books that all members of the Ed School community could read and discuss as part of the shared reading list instituted by HGSE's Academic Cabinet, it was not a surprise that one volume in the shared reading series focused sharply on school reform.

David Tyack

Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform explores the dynamic tension between Americans' faith in education as a panacea and the difficulty of improving educational practices. Co-authors David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban, two of the country's leading scholars on the subject, discussed their ideas at an Askwith Education Forum last spring. Tyack is the Vida Jacks Professor of Education and professor of history emeritus at Stanford University, and Cuban is professor of education emeritus at Stanford and past president of the American Educational Research Association.

David Tyack:
Policy talk in education has too often overstated what is wrong with schools, and understated how hard it is to get from here to there. If you look at the history of reform, you can argue that reforms haven't done much of a job of changing schools. In fact, the school reforms that promise to start from scratch and reinvent education from the bottom up almost always fall flat on their faces.

If you look at schools, they're amazing, robust institutions. They've been able to survive wars and depressions and massive immigration and even reformers who want to make them over. In the middle of these difficulties, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, people looked on schools as part of the solution, not as the major part of the problem. According to the Gallup polls, Americans believed in the progress of education for a century and a half and then, so fast, lost their faith in education. All but a tiny handful of people said, "My kids are getting a better education than I did." Find an adult who'll say that today. So the question is, why have we become preoccupied with failure after having such a long history of believing in progress through education?

Here's one answer: When school systems don't achieve [the goals designed by politicians], trust diminishes. Back in 1991, the nation's governors and the senior President Bush signed Goals 2000, which promised that every school would be free of drugs and violence, that every American adult would be literate, and that American students would be first in the world in science and mathematics by the year 2000. That was 12 years ago, and those goals still haven't been realized.

Larry and I both agree that our picture of [an improved educational system] is not the brilliant light at the end of the tunnel, but rather the "tinkering" of reforms that last. InTinkering Toward Utopia, we argued that the purposes of education and the way of judging success have been radically narrowed. School reforms are now designed to enhance the economic advancement of the individual and the international competition of the country. And the way that schools today will be judged on whether they're doing a good job is test scores.

Test scores have come to mean accountability. They also turn teachers into professional accountants, instead of people who are professionally accountable. The biggest problem today really is how to keep good teachers in teaching. We have a big flow in and a big flow out. And often, the ones who leave are the ones who don't like all these affronts to their dignity. For goodness sake, let's stop talking about the financial value of education and talk instead about human capital, about schools helping to create people who are fully developed as human beings and as democratic citizens.

Larry and I wrote this book to help instigate that fundamental change. We also wrote this book with the hope that more reform will take place inside schools, and that teachers will not only be consulted but be the most active agents in those reforms.

Larry Cuban (©2003 Joshua Lavine)

Larry Cuban:
Today's teachers have become—to borrow a popular military phrase—"the soldiers of reform." Yet no teachers' thumbprint or signature can be seen on state and federal policies of the past quarter-century. Consequently, these policies confront many teachers with very practical dilemmas. How much time do I take out of what I want to teach to prepare students for high-stakes tests? Can I continue to teach in ways that get at independent thinking, deeper understanding of concepts, and working together on intellectual tasks when I am being held responsible for raising my students' test scores? How can I remain true to my goals for teaching and not hurt my students' futures?

Few policymakers consider these daily dilemmas because they see teachers largely as technicians who put into practice what needs to be done. But no sustained improvement will occur without qualified and experienced teachers working together with the larger community to improve schools. And this, of course, is the policymakers' dilemma.

The proposed reforms, outside and inside schools—to reduce the test-score gap between whites and poor minorities; to help poor minority families increase their income through steady work at livable wages and then their children's test scores will improve; to establish research-proven reading programs for every single, poor, or minority child; to give each kid a laptop computer—are endless and uncertain in their outcomes. Confidence in one or the other of these proposals is a matter of faith, not a scientific finding. Fierce struggles are generated over which reform gets adopted. These battles are about political power, control, and access to resources.

A steady concentration of state and federal authority has strengthened top-down decision-making, particularly in big cities where mayors and noneducators run schools. On the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, most states have assumed far greater control over local funding, curriculum, testing and governance than existed in 1983.

The consensus among business leaders, policymakers, teachers' unions, and civic groups of what constitutes a good school has converged with a view of schooling that many parents and taxpayers have held for decades. I'm talking about standards-based reform. A single best approach to schooling, however—and this is a big however—hardly fits a diverse, democratic, and multipurpose institution like public schools.

The second consequence of the standards movement is the blindness to the poverty of most urban and rural schools. Current state and federal strategies place the full burden upon schools and schools alone to remedy low academic performance. At best, this strategy of leaning on schools alone is inadequate; at worst, it willfully ignores a history filled with examples of reform-minded elites expecting schools to solve severe social problems and then blaming students, teachers, and administrators for failing to remedy those very same problems.

To reduce inequalities between high-, middle-, and low-income communities, more—not less—must be done for and with those who go to poor schools and who staff those schools. Treating all schools as the same means that you keep the status quo. A combination of out-of-school and in-school strategies are needed to reduce this corrosive impact of poverty on families and communities and the lack of qualified and experienced teachers and principals. The current strategy that schools alone can do the job of reducing social inequalities, including the test score gap between minorities and whites, is simply flawed. But which reforms, inside and outside schools, have the most payoff for poor students and their families? Well, let me set matters straight very quickly. No one knows for sure. Scientific studies cannot completely establish the best reform because reforming schools is essentially a series of political acts, rather than technical solutions to problems. Few elected policymakers dare to say any of these words now.

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More information about the Askwith Education Forums is available in the HGSE Events Calendar.

About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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