Harvard Educational Review
  1. Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?

    By Larry Cuban

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2003. 112 pp. $14.95

    Any conception of a “good” school is anchored in each of our experiences and values about what we believe are the purposes of schooling in a democracy, what knowledge is of most worth, how learning and teaching should occur, and what constitutes school success. (p. 65)

    In his recent book, Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?, Larry Cuban argues persuasively that America’s struggle to provide “good” schools for its children is largely due to the nation’s varied purposes of schooling throughout history and its struggle to provide adequate education for an increasingly diverse student population. In the text, organized around three lectures, Cuban contends that twice in the last century, business-driven coalitions of corporate and union leaders, public officials, and parents have drafted educators into reforming public schools in ways that have moved away from civic engagement as a primary purpose of schooling. In four short chapters, Cuban guides readers through a journey of the personal, political, and economic tensions among various stakeholders (e.g., educators, parents, students, policymakers, businesses, etc.) in schooling to show, (a) why it is so difficult to define “good” schools, (b) why we should have them, and (c) whom they serve. He posits that “a business-inspired version of a ‘good’ school has converged with popular views of what is a ‘good’ school to create an educational orthodoxy of a one-best-school for all American children” (p. 6) — the age-graded school.

    Cuban suggests that the traditional notion of an age-graded school with a standard curriculum as the model of a “good” school ignores a history of many “good” schools in American public and private education and neglects what he considers to be the fundamental purpose of public schooling — “building literate, civic-minded, socially responsible students who prize productive labor” (p. 54). It is this purpose of schooling that guides Cuban’s discussion throughout the book.

    In Cuban’s first lecture (ch. 1), he focuses on evidence from the 1880s to the 1930s and from the 1980s to the 2000s to suggest that twice in American history, business-led reform coalitions have greatly influenced school curriculum, governance, and management to prepare students for skilled jobs for “fear of foreign competition and fiercely held beliefs that education harnessed to upgrading worker skills [would] bolster the nation’s global market position” (p. 20). With the country’s interest in staying competitive in industrial markets, the move from one-room schools to the age-graded school (adopted from Prussia) promised more efficient public schooling to satisfy the demands of a manufacturing-based economy. While Cuban is not against preparing students for productive work, he argues that this narrowed goal for education neglects the far broader and historic mission of civic engagement. Cuban concludes this lecture by asking, “Where are the many versions of ‘good’ schools and teaching that have prevailed in public schools in the past century and that are the current hallmark of private schools and higher education?” (p. 20). Cuban posits that we value schooling that is civic oriented rather than market driven.

    In his second lecture (ch. 2), Cuban challenges readers to think beyond the “contemporary blueprint” (p. 25) of a good school by presenting vignettes exemplifying different school models: traditional/conservative, nontraditional/progressive, community-based, and progressive/democratic schools. These four models are examples of good schools, past and present. Cuban discusses what makes these schools good and why there has been so much conflict among educational stakeholders as to which type of school is best for children. He argues that no one type of school is best for all children, but that different communities require different schools. Cuban concludes this lecture by eloquently arguing that it is hard to get good schools because notions of goodness in schools vary based on individual values and beliefs. Furthermore, few reformers have seriously considered how each view of a good school is connected to ideas about childrearing and democratic responsiveness. Moreover, he contends, “color-blind and class-blind reformers, with the best of intentions, either fail to see or ignore how race and social-class stratification persist outside schools and are amplified in a one-best system for all children” (p. 37).

    In Cuban’s final lecture (ch. 3), he challenges educators, researchers, and policymakers to answer the question of how to get more good schools by asking “good for what?” (i.e., which purposes of schooling) and “good for whom?” (i.e., a very diverse student population). Cuban critiques the current “all children can learn” mantra by challenging educational reformers to consider that providing equal access to education is not enough: “Unequal treatment is essential for students whose needs differ greatly and vary in motivation, interests, aptitudes, and background” (p. 45), he writes. He holds the position that redefining good schools must include dismantling the division of students by age and grade. Cuban believes that parent, student, and teacher satisfaction must be the standard for determining a good school, and what matters in judging whether schools are good is not whether they are progressive, community-based, or traditional, but “whether they are discharging their primary duty to seriously and deliberately educate students to think and act democratically inside and outside of classrooms” (p. 47).

    In his final chapter, Cuban offers further reflections on his arguments presented in the three lectures, exploring personal dilemmas that are deeply embedded in his analysis and proposals. For him, these two dilemmas are 1) whether or not to work inside or outside schools to improve the lives of students, and 2) whether or not all school reforms create real payoffs for students who are least well off in our society. This book is a must read for anyone who is, like Cuban, interested in deeply examining why it is so hard to get and keep good schools that promote civic engagement among our students.

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    Book Notes

    Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?
    By Larry Cuban

    Losing My Faculties
    By Brendan Halpin

    Teaching with Fire
    Edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner

    Troubling Education
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Promotion of Social Awareness
    By Robert Selman

    Affirming Diversity
    By Sonia Nieto

    City Schools and the American Dream
    By Pedro Noguera

    Adolescent Lives in Transition
    By Donna Marie San Antonio