Voices in Education

10 Essential Questions About School Reform
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 26, number 6). Copyright 2010 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Education researcher Jane David and Stanford University education historian Larry Cuban have just published
Cutting Through the Hype: The Essential Guide to School Reform. In this interview, David talks about this revised and expanded edition of their popular primer, first published in 2006.

What motivated you to write a new edition of your guide?

The speed and intensity of school reform is increasing as the federal government and foundations tie their funding to particular reforms. So we wanted to add chapters about turnaround schools and teacher pay as reform strategies, for example, and update other chapters with the latest research.

What types of reforms do you discuss in your book?

We discuss three classes of reforms: those that aim to reform the whole system, such as standards-based reform or charter schools; those that target entire schools, such as creating small high schools or adding more time in school; and those focused on the classroom such as data-driven instruction or English language learning.

Which aspects of schooling are easiest to reform? Which are hardest?

It is far easier to change school structures, like the length of the school year or the size of a school, than to change what goes on inside classrooms. Changing how millions of teachers teach reading and math, for example, is difficult at best and requires significant investment to provide the needed time and expertise so that administrators and teachers can actually learn new approaches.

Why is there so much hype surrounding each successive wave of school reform?

Because sweeping reforms are promoted by politicians—including corporate, foundation, and even education leaders—who latch onto what sounds like a good idea and then must overpromise to sell the idea to their peers. Their hype embodies hope and optimism, but not reality.

Are there some things that reforms can’t accomplish that policymakers should be aware of?

School reforms cannot control what happens to children before they enter school and what happens during non-school hours. Yet these experiences exert tremendous influence on what students are and are not able to learn during school hours.

How effective are policymakers at learning from the success or failure of previous reforms?

Policymakers are notoriously bad at learning from the past. Although many new policies require states and districts to be accountable for results, few include provisions to study whether the policies themselves are working as intended and what it would take to make them do so.

How can educators distinguish between promising reforms and reforms that may only sound promising?

Promising reforms are those in which educators have a voice in shaping, and the time, knowledge, and support to put them into practice.

How has the documentation and evaluation of reform changed over time?

In the later decades of the twentieth century, the documentation and evaluation of federal and state reforms focused on a range of outcomes, from test scores to judgments made by participants. These measures were designed to explain what was and was not working as intended, and why. In the last decade test-score outcomes and experiments designed to demonstrate causal relationships have become the politically preferred approach.

What happens to reforms as they transition from policy to classroom practice?

Like the game of “telephone,” by the time policies reach teachers, their original purpose is often distorted beyond recognition. Successful implementation takes time, resources, and investments in ensuring that leaders and teachers have the understanding and skills to do what is being asked of them.

What can be done to increase the likelihood that worthwhile reforms succeed?

The primary ways to make sure reforms are successful are to understand what conditions need to be in place for reforms to have a chance to succeed, and to create those conditions where they do not already exist. Giving schools the flexibility to adapt and providing incentives that do not distort the intent of the reform are also important components.

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