A pessimistic view of public school reform
Confessions of a School Reformer
by Larry Cuban
Harvard Education Press, 2021, $36; 275 pages.
As reviewed by Paul E. Peterson
“They’re no good,” the head of a Fortune 500 company lamented not long ago about America’s schools. “Students are learning little, education gaps are widening and there is not much we can do about it.” Pressed on the subject, he relaxed. ” It’s not serious. Our universities are excellent and we can import the talents we need, even if we have to worry about social peace. Sadly, his public comments (which I paraphrase here) perfectly encapsulate the private conversations heard when business and civic leaders come together. A few years ago, a prominent US senator whispered much the same thing to me as we walked into a dining room together.
Larry Cuban, a former public school superintendent turned urban historian, admits to having much the same view. Students don’t learn much in school and achievement gaps are widening, but schools shouldn’t be blamed because they can’t be changed. Not that it matters for much, except for persistent racial and socio-economic inequalities. The Stanford professor emeritus acknowledges that he has “strayed from his progressive roots as a reforming educator.” Like the businessman, he “tempered the unvarnished optimism I initially had about the power of schools”. Cuba only differs from the Chief Executive in assigning responsibility for contemporary conditions.
Cuban accepts the inevitable in avuncular tones in this quasi-memory. Born the son of Jewish immigrants in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, he was infected with polio at a young age, which left him with a modest lameness. At school, he found little to inspire him. Of his “early years at Minersville”, he “does not recall any teachers or private lessons”. He earned his first “A” in high school in his 10th grade history class from a teacher who taught “from the textbook, lectured, held periodic whole-group discussions, and gave quizzes.” Still, he enjoyed sports in high school and adored his close-knit B’nai B’rith boys’ club. In college, he found organic chemistry his “loss” and “drift” into the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. After graduating, he rose through the ranks of men’s education, from teaching at an all-black school in Cleveland to administering doctoral studies at a “federally funded teacher training project.” as a part-time “master teacher” and supervisor of “four Peace Corps”. volunteers.” Before long, he was working for the US Civil Rights Commission, then got a scholarship to the Stanford School of Education, where he earned his doctorate and met his teacher and lifelong friend, historian David Tyack. With DC connections from Cuba, he was granted superintendence of the school system in Arlington, Va. When the school board fell to Republicans, he quit his job, returning to Stanford and climbing to the top of the academic level. Even better, his marriage to Barbara Joan Smith turned out to be fruitful and happy. “Life was good for the Cubans,” he says, and he gives us no reason to doubt him on this point.
Given her rise from the bottom to the top of the educational ladder, one would expect Cuban to remember her life and times with the same celebratory flourish as the educational historian. from Harvard, Patricia Graham, brings to her 2005 work, Schooling America. For her, the story of the 20th century school is one of immigrant assimilation, racial integration and the struggle for excellence. While it acknowledges the flaws and dissonances of the American education system, it also heralds its accomplishments. Like Graham, Cuban divides the 20th century into three thirds, but his trilogy could be titled Immigrants Turned Docile Workers; minorities re-segregated after Brown; and liability rules have stifled learning. In other words, the tale updates two earlier pessimistic stories, that of Michael Katz The irony of school reform and David Tyack A better system.
Companies are driving the action, according to Cuban. “The actions of business leaders and citizens. . . show the permeability of tax-funded public schools. . . to major economic, social and cultural currents. These actors build classes by age groups, insist on vocational education, authorize re-segregation, demand standardized tests and institute vocational and technical education. The unfortunate educator is caught in the nexus. As superintendent, Cuban is helpless when “business leaders in Virginia have embraced” the idea that “state-mandated standards will improve academic performance in high schools.”
“The public belief that schools can reshape or change society. . . is unfounded,” he said. School districts are “embedded in larger socio-economic, political and caste structures (e.g. market-oriented society focused on individual agency, economic inequality, racist structures), all of which are hemmed. . . in which superintendents . . . [can] do.” Moreover, he notes, schools are only a small part of a bigger picture. “Less than 20 percent of a child’s and adolescent’s waking time” is spent inside a school.”Eighty percent of their time is spent at home, in the neighborhood and in religious institutions with families, friends and other people.”For Cuban, the only solution is to alter “wider societal inequalities in the distribution of wealth, job insecurity, the lack of adequate housing for large swathes of American families, and the persistent ebb and flow of racism.”
But if 80% of a young person’s time is spent outside of school, and if home, neighborhood, and religious institutions are at the center of the action, then family strengthening and family control over school could offer the best way out of the current quagmire. Cuban ignores this possibility, only mentioning the school choice in passing. He notes that “nearly half of all students” in the District of Columbia now attend charter schools, but he fails to mention that DC schools have improved faster than those in any state in the country. instead claiming that it “remains disputed”. whether the academic performance of DC students has improved.
Cuban isn’t saying outright that schools don’t matter and can’t be changed, but his main message is essentially that. It well reflects the mood of today’s business and educational elites. Top business leaders and philanthropists are turning to other concerns. Urban superintendents roam from school district to school district not believing they can make a big difference. Schools are closed to stem the spread of a virus which, unlike polio, poses little risk to young people. Unions call for strike when teachers are asked to return to school. School boards are more concerned with adults than with children. Activists pursue narrow agendas. Failing schools become a partisan board game, not a national concern. Learning falls off a cliff.
Paul E. Peterson, editor of Education Nextis the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program in Educational Policy and Governance at Harvard University.