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School improvement in the real world

Stanford University researcher Larry Cuban long ago proved himself among the most daring of pundits, willing to disparage the most popular education policies---like loading schools up with computers---when the data showed they weren't as effective as advertised. In his latest book he questions an even bigger assumption---that school reform will happen if we pursue it energetically and sincerely.

The book's title, "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin," makes it sound narrower than it is. Looking carefully at what happened in the state capital's schools over several years is a terrific way to judge the whole course of school improvement in Texas, one of the top five states in its emphasis on raising achievement over the last three decades.

What he finds is that no matter how well-meaning and well-organized are state level, or even district level, reformers, the drag of poverty, local tradition and the peculiarities of principals and school staff leave the affluent schools still far ahead of the poor ones.

His suggestions are interesting---raise the ceiling for successful schools, raise the floor for unsuccessful ones, increase school choice for middle and high schools, regularly monitor reforms and support community efforts to attack poverty in all of its forms. The book itself is a welcome splash of reality on our often feverish assumption that if we want change enough, it will come. Maybe, Cuban says, but we have to work at it consistently for a long time.

By Jay Mathews  | October 27, 2009; 9:38 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Comments

You want real education reform? Get the government out of it. Privatize the whole process and don't even try to regulate it. Let people be free to go out on the open market and puchase exactly the education they want for their kids. Auction off all the real estate owned by boards of ed, get rid of the unresponsive, unaffordable beaurocracy and turn all those government teachers into educational entrepeneurs. Give power back to the consumer!

Posted by: hit4cycle | October 27, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

@hit4cycle - Your agenda really doesn't have anything to do with the concept presented by the writer. The idea is that schools in poverty have a hard time improving no matter what. Your solution to that difficult problem is ridiculous. Poverty drags down the entire nation. We are not dealing with the underlying issues of poverty so we'll never be able to fix the schools is the point the book's author is making. Privatization as a cure-all for the problems of education is short-sighted, naive and, frankly, immoral. Please counter my argument and let me know in plain terms (for I am a product of public schools) how privatization is an answer to the crisis of urban and rural poverty and its effects on the development of children.

Posted by: JoanfromBaltimore | October 27, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Are we as a society willing to raise the ceiling for good schools if that results in a stagnant or even an increased "achievement gap"? Is it okay to have a rising tide lift those who start out in front as much as or even more than those who start out behind?

I personally feel that it's more important for U.S. students to make progress on an absolute scale rather than worrying so much about how subgroups compare with each other. But then again, I don't think it's the job of the schools to solve the problem of social inequality in the U.S.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 27, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

JoanFromBaltimore: While I'm sure you have good intentions, the time has come to experiment with completely new approaches to improving education since the old ways are so obviously ineffective. I think it's immoral for government schools to keep cranking out poorly educated graduates at such great expense. Too many government schools are grim, one-size-must-fit-all, warehouses that only succeed primarily as glorified day care centers. I'd prefer to keep my tax dollars and purchase the education I think best for my child. I could choose a school that emphasizes science or arts or discipline or religion or environmentalism or athletics. The point is I would have a choice. And please don't tell me that an education is a "right" because nothing can be a "right" if it forces one to labor on behalf of another. Slavery was outlawed in 1862.

Posted by: hit4cycle | October 28, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

hit4cycle: On what are you basing your statement that schools are cranking out poorly educated graduates at great expense? If we look at some of the greatest innovations happening in our country we see folks in their 20s and 30s leading those innovations. I believe that schools today are educating a greater percentage of our children at a higher level than schools of 30 years ago or more. We base all our assumptions about schools on test scores and that is solely one small piece of the picture.

Posted by: Jenny04 | October 31, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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