John Thompson: A look back at other existential threats to education
Education writer looks at Larry Cuban’s Confessions of a School Reformer and the debates that have surrounded public education in the past. Special post to this blog.
Cuban starts with the multiple, contradictory beliefs that divided Progressive reformers. Science-supported, holistic, hands-on instruction for “learning-by-doing” was the goal of many Progressives. But, given the nation’s focus on economic progress, it’s not surprising that efficiency-minded Progressives had the political advantage. The tragic “long story” of efficiency-minded reform became a prelude to test-driven, Standards-based, corporate reformers, who ignored the research explaining why the failure of their top-down mandates was likely to be repeated. And, given the sad history of 21st century corporate reforms, it’s not surprising that the narrative keeps going back to the reformers who “sort[ed] students in one-size fits-all-curriculum.”
As the Civil Rights education movement declined in the 1970s, the nation was clobbered by deindustrialization. So, schools started to be burdened by another round of reforms imposed by true believers who hoped that better education would drive economic progress. Today’s output-driven reformers also failed to learn from the 1960s Coleman Report which showed that the most important factors in school outcomes were the family and a diverse socio-economic mix. They also ignored the reality of schools needing to wrestle with political and social forces. Again, their simplistic solution was: “prepare better teachers.”
After No Child Left Behind, the “shouted rhetoric” of non-educators who failed to learn from the history of failed reforms again ignored the fact that students only spend 1/5th of their time in school. So reformers took simplistic shortcuts. This also became an era of venture philanthropy, with the “strong smell of Silicon Valley self-interest.”
As Cuban warned, data-driven, accountability-driven mandates led to “teach to the test” and other “perverse” outcomes “which became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.”
Although some will find such words harsh, I was struck by the way that Cuban avoids the blame game through his personal “confessions of a school reformer” approach. He combines research with openness about his successes and defeats as an urban teacher (during the Civil Rights Education movement) and as a district superintendent (during the 1970s when “the marching orders” were efficiency and making better teachers.) In each role, Cuban learned lessons about the larger social and political contexts that ideology-driven reformers brushed off.
Cuban’s says things that few education leaders would dare to express, such as recalling his K-12 school experiences that “pale in comparison to what I remember about my life outside of school.” During his first years teaching in Cleveland during the Civil Rights era, Cuban was “elated by the apparent success of my critical thinking skills unit.” But when asking follow-up questions, he was met with “blank stares.” It took him 7 years of “fits and stumbles” to develop the type of lessons that could turnaround schools. But even so, they were “too demanding of teachers given the working conditions we faced.”
As Arlington superintendent, Cuban “believed the district, not the school or the classroom was the primary unit of school reform,” but he learned that his focus also was too narrow. He realized that school transformation required teamwork with the larger community. And throughout his long term view of history, he also had to admit that even after reforms failed, too many educators continued down the same doomed path.
On the other hand, Cuban saw that other educators adjusted their practices. And that hopeful observation may help explain the one possible, semi-mistake in Confessions of a School Reformer. The book was completed in the Spring of 2021. At that time, Cuban was correct in writing that parents retained confidence in schools after Covid. So, his prediction that post-Covid reforms would be incremental – even superficial – made sense. After all, the New York Times reported:
More parents were satisfied in 2021 than they were in 2013 and 2002, when satisfaction dipped into the 60s, and in 2019, we were at a high point in satisfaction — 82 percent — before the Covid pandemic dealt schools a major blow.
But, digging deeper into the Gallup numbers revealed that the people who seem to be driving the negative feelings toward American schools do not have children attending them: Overall, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools.
And, who could have known the latest rightwing, scorched earth assault on schools would be so effective?
And that conclusion is very consistent with Cuban’s holistic approach.
That brings us back to the reminders provided by Larry Cuban that America and public education have survived existential battles before. Some educators may have overly optimistic memories of the victories that have been achieved, but we have to be in for the long haul. And Cuban’s hard-earned wisdom is essential for what it will take to rebuild schools that are worthy of our democracy.