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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: School Reform Again, Again, and Yet Again

For U.S. readers of this post* think for a moment about your time as students for 13-plus years in elementary and secondary schools and as parents of sons and daughters now attending school. Such a look backward I suspect would establish clearly that at different times you were the object of school reforms as a student. If you are (or have been) a teacher and administrator, you helped put school reforms into practice. If you are now a working parent and taxpayer, you have experienced school reforms and now can observe current ones.

Should you be a reader in their 20s to 40s, you experienced varied curricular changes, pumped-up graduation requirements, and many standardized tests as you proceeded through a dozen or more years of schooling. You went to school at a time when state and federal reform efforts (e.g., new math and science standards, charter schools, No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act) sought to prepare graduates to enter jobs in an information-driven economy.

If any 40-something readers are now public school teachers or administrators, they are implementing such standards, tests, and accountability in their schools. If these readers are also parents, then they can see the results of those reforms preparing their own sons and daughters for college and career.

For those readers in their 50s and 60s, as students you have experienced the aftermath of Sputnik and rivalry with the Soviet Union, the Civil Rights movement, and Back-to-Basics as they spilled over schools in the 1960s and 1970s. New science and math curricula and Advanced Placement courses gave way to a new round of reforms aimed at reducing segregated schools. Increased federal funding (e.g., Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, No Child Left Behind, 2001-2015 and Every Student Succeeds Act, 2016) sought to improve low-income children’s academic performance.

Those 50-something readers who are now mid-to-late career teachers and administrators are beginning the fourth decade of reforms triggered by A Nation at Risk report (1983). In most schools and districts, changes stemming from the above reforms continue to be implemented. Middle-age parents today have experienced the steady patter of school reforms including current ones targeted on getting every student into college and starting a career.

I am much older than nearly all of my readers. As a result, I have experienced the above reforms and even earlier ones. For example, I attended Pittsburgh (PA) elementary and secondary schools between 1939-1951, the tail end of the Progressive Era. I taught high school history in Cleveland (OH) and Washington (D.C.) public schools between 1956-1972 during the Civil Rights movement. I was a superintendent in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981 as reforms to stiffen graduation requirements, increase testing, and send high school graduates to college rippled across the nation.

Since then I have moved from a participant to an observer (while being a parent of two daughters). As a university researcher I have gone into schools to watch teachers teach every year prior to the pandemic while also publishing articles and books about the present and past of U.S. schooling. Overall, I have been a public school student, teacher, administrator, and researcher/writer for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Over those decades, reform after reform spilled over U.S. public schools. As students, professionals, and parents, I and most readers have experienced, implemented, and observed reforms in the 20th and early 21st centuries. School reform, then, is not something distant or far removed from our lives. For me, it has been as normal as breathing and eating.



*I began writing this blog in 2009. International readers of my posts have ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2023, about one-third of my readers live outside the U.S.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...