Learning from the Past: School Reform Then and Now


There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.   

Theodore Search, President of the National Association of Manufacturers, 1898 (quoted here, p. 29)

 No issue will have a bigger impact on the future performance of our economy than education.  In the long run it’s going to … determine whether businesses stay here.  It will determine whether businesses are created here, whether businesses are hiring here.  And it will determine whether there’s going to be an abundance of good middle-class jobs in America….The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That’s a simple fact.  And if we want America to continue to be number one and stay number one, we’ve got some work to do. 

President Barack Obama, speech to National Governors Association, 2012

I begin with these quotations, spanning more than a century, to make a simple point: past and present policy elites have connected the economy to education and designed reforms to tie the two together.

Between the 1890s and 1920s, when the U.S. competed with Great Britain and Germany in selling products in a global marketplace, progressive reformers created a vocational curriculum in addition to the dominant college preparatory program in secondary schools — making career preparation a goal of U.S. public schools (see here and here). A century later, business and civic leaders still talk about the connection between effective schools and economic growth, but the vocational programs of the early 20th century have all but disappeared. The global economy has shifted from an industry-driven market to an information-driven one, and today’s dominant educational goal is not vocational but academic,  preparing students for a bachelor’s degree, not a high school diploma.

In 2014, economically-driven reformers want more parental choice in selecting schools, more technology in classrooms, more focus on academic standards, and more accountability for teachers and schools. The new national Common Core standards play an ambiguous and contested role within these reforms.

But the rhetoric of policy elites and a shared vision for reform often fail to make a difference in the most important domain of education: the classroom. The chain between rhetoric and change is easily broken. That is my second, and more important, point (see here, here, and here). Let me explain the relationship between talk, action, and implementation, historically and concretely.


Policy talk refers to education reformers’ cries for action, usually in response to a perceived crisis or opportunity. Historians can trace, for instance, the sense of crisis that followed A Nation at Risk (1983) and which led to governors’ proposals to improve education and the federal government’s new forays into K-12 education. Many of us also remember the promise of a “new age in education” that followed the advent of personal computers. Such policy talk is important in framing problems, mobilizing political coalitions, and getting educators to roll up their sleeves to solve school problems. Seldom, however, do doom-tinged words or ambitious talk about transformation usher in meaningful change. Words have to be converted into policies.

Policy adoption refers to actual decisions that governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make to solve problems framed in the language of policy talk. Examples of policy action include legislatures authorizing mayors to take control of schools, boards of education buying Tablets for kindergartners, and New York State’s Board of Regents’ approval of the Common Core standards in 2010.

Policy implementation in districts, schools, and classrooms, however, differs from both talk and action. Implementation means putting an adopted policy into practice. This is significantly more tenuous than rhetoric or policy adoption.

Consider what often occurs after a state or district adopts new technologies to increase student engagement and test scores. No matter the level of initial enthusiasm, when observers go into classrooms to see how teachers use new devices in lessons, they find great variation across districts and even within the same school. Some teachers pick and choose what to use in their classrooms; others ponder when to begin implementing, and even others ignore the policy. Because of school cultures and organizational structures, change is gradual, scattered, and episodic. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the lofty promises policymakers make when they adopt new policies.


The distinctions between talk, adoption, and implementation are important to bear in mind. Let us take New York State’s decision to adopt the Common Core Learning Standards as exemplary of the process.

The rhetoric around Common Core has been ambitious. Advocates promote the standards as a means to prepare high school graduates for college and to propel them thence into decently paid, middle-class jobs, strengthening the United States’ global competitiveness in the process.

New York State’s Board of Regents adopted the new standards in 2010, at which point implementation began.

The State Department of Education began to pilot reading and math standards in selected districts, and then expanded its efforts across the state. The Commissioner of Education has allocated funds for teacher professional development and other tools to help make Common Core standards easier to put into practice. In 2013, New York State students took early versions of the new tests that are to accompany the standards.

And yet, there have been difficulties with implementation within the classrooms and in the public square. Many teachers feel that they have not been sufficiently prepared for the new models of instruction; some parents have expressed anger at their lowering of their children’s test scores in the wake of the higher standards. With conflict emerging over district officials’ and teachers’ level of preparation to implement Common Core lessons, and the impending tests being used to evaluate teacher performance, the Regents have delayed full implementation for five years (see here and here).

At this point, it is unclear whether such difficulties will scupper or merely delay the Common Core’s inroads in New York State. Time will tell. What history does teach us clearly is that, in this country, education and economic prosperity are inextricably linked in the public imagination, and that understanding the distinction between talk, adoption, and implementation is vital in assessing the progress of reform. When we forget these lessons, we risk mistaking rhetoric for reform and neglect the long, often arduous, path towards putting policy into classroom practice.


Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years), university professor (20 years), and author or co-author of numerous books, reports, and studies, including  As Good As It Gets, Against the Odds, and Cutting through the Hype. He also writes a blog, http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/

Leave a reply

Recent Posts


Moynihan and the Modern American Family at 50

By Gerard Robinson | Senior Fellow, CUNY Institute for Education Policy “The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening. The fundamental problem, in which this is clearly the case, is that of family structure.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1964) “If the misery of the poor be caused not by… Read More

Director's Perspective

An Open Letter On School Accountability

Below you will find the outline of some thoughts on educational accountability. The topic has become one of the central issues in contemporary reform efforts in American education, with particularly heated debate over efforts to measure the effectiveness of teachers through test scores as well as classroom observations. But the issue is wider than this,… Read More

Reports from the Field

Institutional Commitment to Civic Education: Public Montessori Secondary Schools

By Katie Dulaney | Lakewood Montessori School Even as we hold schools increasingly accountable for student achievement, we rarely seem to judge schools for their performance in citizenship preparation, an inauspicious “accountability gap” for a democracy. -Michael Johanek and John Puckett, “The State of Civic Education” (2005) Education leaders across the political spectrum – from… Read More