A Pessimistic View of Public-College Reform

Confessions of a College Reformer
by Larry Cuban
Harvard Schooling Press, 2021, $36; 275 pages.

As reviewed by Paul E. Peterson

“They’re not good,” the top of a Fortune 500 firm lamented about U.S. faculties not way back. “College students be taught little, schooling gaps are widening, and never a lot might be carried out about it.” Pressed on the matter, he relaxed. “It’s not a severe matter. Our universities are glorious, and we will import the expertise we want—although we do want to fret about social peace.” Sadly, his public feedback (which I’m paraphrasing right here) neatly summarize personal conversations heard when enterprise and civic leaders collect. A couple of years again, a outstanding U.S. senator whispered a lot the identical to me as we entered a eating room collectively.

Larry Cuban, a former public-schools superintendent turned city historian, confesses to carry a lot the identical view. College students usually are not studying a lot at college, and achievement gaps are widening, however faculties shouldn’t be blamed, as they can’t be modified. Not that it counts for a lot, apart from persistent racial and socioeconomic inequalities. The emeritus Stanford professor acknowledges that he has “pulled again from his Progressive roots as a reform-driven educator.” Just like the businessman, he has “tempered the unvarnished optimism I had initially concerning the energy of colleges.” Cuban differs from the chief government solely when assigning blame for modern circumstances.

Cuban accepts the inevitable in avuncular tones on this quasi-memoir. Born the son of Jewish immigrants in a working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, he was at a younger age contaminated with polio, which left him with a modest limp. At college, he discovered little to encourage him. From his “early years at Minersville” he “can recall no explicit instructor or classes.” He bought his first highschool “A” in his Tenth-grade historical past class from a instructor who taught “from the textbook, lectured, held periodic whole-group discussions, and gave quizzes.” Nonetheless, he loved sports activities in highschool and cherished his close-knit B’nai B’rith boys membership. At school, he discovered natural chemistry his “undoing” and “drifted into” the College of Pittsburgh’s faculty of schooling. Upon commencement, he climbed the male schooling ladder from educating in an all-Black faculty in Cleveland to administration to doctoral research to a “federally funded teacher-training venture” as a part-time “grasp instructor” and supervisor of “4 Peace Corps volunteers.” Earlier than lengthy, he was working for the U.S. Fee on Civil Rights, then gained a fellowship to the Stanford College of Schooling, the place he earned his doctoral diploma and met his lifelong instructor and good friend, historian David Tyack. With Cuban’s D.C. connections, he secured the superintendency of the Arlington, Virginia, faculty system. When the varsity board fell into Republican arms, he stop the place, solely to return to Stanford to climb to the highest of the educational ladder. Better of all, his marriage to Barbara Joan Smith proved fecund and joyful. “Life was good for the Cubans,” he says. And he provides us no purpose to doubt him on that rating.

Given his climb from the underside to the highest of the schooling ladder, one would possibly count on Cuban to recall his life and occasions with the identical celebratory flourish Harvard schooling historian Patricia Graham brings to her 2005 work, Education America. For her, the story of the Twentieth-century faculty is one in all immigrant assimilation, racial integration, and the wrestle for excellence. Although she acknowledges faults and dissonances within the American schooling system, she additionally heralds its accomplishments. Like Graham, Cuban divides the Twentieth century into thirds, however his trilogy may very well be titled immigrants manufactured into compliant employees; minorities resegregated after Brown; and accountability guidelines stifled studying. In different phrases, the story updates two earlier pessimistic histories, Michael Katz’s The Irony of College Reform and David Tyack’s One Greatest System.

A Pessimistic View of Public-College Reform
Larry Cuban

Companies drive the motion, in Cuban’s view. “The actions of enterprise and civic leaders . . . present the permeability of tax-supported public faculties . . . to main financial, social and cultural currents.” These actors construct age-graded lecture rooms, insist on vocational schooling, enable resegregation, require standardized assessments, and institute profession and technical schooling. The unlucky educator is caught within the nexus. As superintendent, Cuban is helpless when “Virginia enterprise leaders adopted” the notion that “state mandated requirements will enhance excessive faculties’ educational efficiency.”

“Public religion that faculties can reshape or alter society . . . is unfounded,” he maintains. College districts are “nested inside bigger socioeconomic, political and caste-like constructions (e.g., market-driven society centered on particular person motion, financial inequalities, racist constructions), all of which hem . . . in what superintendents . . . [can] do.” Additional, he notes, faculties are however a small a part of a much bigger image. “Lower than 20 p.c of a kid’s and teenager’s waking time” is spent inside a schoolhouse. “Eighty p.c of their time is spent within the house, neighborhood, and non secular establishments with households, associates, and others.” For Cuban, the one resolution is to change “the bigger societal inequalities in wealth distribution, employment insecurity, the shortage of sufficient housing for big swaths of American households, and the persistent ebb and stream of racism.”

But when 80 p.c of an adolescent’s time is spent outdoors faculty, and if house, neighborhood, and non secular establishments are the middle of the motion, then household strengthening and household management over education would possibly supply the perfect methods out of the present morass. Cuban ignores this chance, mentioning faculty alternative solely in passing. He does observe that “practically half of all college students” within the District of Columbia now attend constitution faculties, however he fails to say that D.C. faculties have improved extra quickly than these of any state within the nation, saying as a substitute that it “stays contested” as as to whether D.C. college students’ educational efficiency has improved.

Cuban doesn’t say outright that faculties don’t matter and may’t be modified, however his core message is actually that. It captures properly the temper of in the present day’s enterprise and academic elites. Company executives and main philanthropists flip to different issues. City superintendents wander from one faculty district to the subsequent with out believing they will make a lot of a distinction. Colleges are closed to stem the unfold of a virus that, in contrast to polio, poses solely small dangers to younger folks. Unions name strikes when academics are requested to return to highschool. College boards fear extra about adults than youngsters. Activists pursue slender agendas. Defective faculties turn out to be a partisan parlor sport, not a nationwide concern. Studying falls over a cliff.

Paul E. Peterson, senior editor of Schooling Subsequent, is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Authorities and director of the Program on Schooling Coverage and Governance at Harvard College.