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7 minutes reading time (1352 words)

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. He was a high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years), and university professor (20 years). He has published a very large number of op-ed pieces, scholarly articles, and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12 and college.

Over the years, I have read many of Cuban’s articles. While I have not always agreed with what he was saying, I am always impressed by the quality of his thinking and clarity in expressing his ideas.

This IAE Blog entry presents and discusses one of Cuban’s recent articles about school reform in the United States (Cuban, 10/25/2017). I strongly support what he says in this and in his two related articles (Cuban, 10/23/2017 and 10/26/2017). Quoting from his 1025/2017 article:

If only policymakers, practitioners, and parents agreed upon what “success” and “failure” mean for schooling. No such agreement exists. [thus] leading to miscommunication and contradictions. Just as there are complications in figuring out the meaning of these common words in business, military operations, and hospital care, so it is for the nation’s public schools.

Many arguments about the quality of our schools remain unresolved because the proponents and opponents of different measures of success and suggested changes in the schools do not agree on how to measure success and failure. For example, think about getting nearly universal agreement on the “a” versus “b” in the following pairs of educational objectives.

1a. Develop speed and accuracy in using pencil and paper to add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers.

1b. Be facile in using a calculator to add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers.

2a. Memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the names of the first ten presidents of the United States.

2b. Be facile in using the Web to retrieve answers to 2a and similar questions.

3a. Be able to read and write in longhand, and correctly spell the words one writes.

3b. Be facile in using a word processor with built-in spelling checker.

It is easy to list more such issues. For example, what are your thoughts on schools emphasizing vocational training/education versus emphasizing preparing students for a traditional academic college or university programs of study? Should we require all students to take rigorous math and science courses that are mainly designed to prepare students for the continuation of such courses in college?

What are your thoughts about requiring students to pass rigorous tests in order to receive a high school diploma?

What are your thoughts about extending the length of the school year, so that a substantial part of the summer is included?

Legislating Improvements in Education

When I talk to people about problems in our schools, I often hear them say, “Why don’t they (meaning our government) do something about it?” Well, “they” certainly try. Quoting again from Cuban (10/25/2017):

 [On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.] NCLB called for all public-school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to ensure that students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized. By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” (Dillon, 12/15/2011; ASCD, n.d.)

Such disappointing results from legislative acts designed to improve schools are not uncommon. The legislation sets goals and provides some funding, but typically fails to address underlying causes. Examples of such causes are poverty, hunger, and huge differences in levels of school funding, and so on.

Cuban goes on to discuss three levels of public schools in the U.S. Paraphrasing from Cuban (10/25/2017):

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and schools in mostly affluent suburbs.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools, often located in inner-ring suburbs.

Third-tier schools—about 30 percent of all schools, located in big cities where largely poor and minority families live.

The Third-tier schools serve a large number of children living in poverty. Quoting from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP, n.d.):

About 15 million children in the United States–21% of all children–live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, a measurement that has been shown to underestimate the needs of families. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 43% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty (Moursund, 5/1/2014).

Many hard-working parents do not come close to making a living wage. New Your City contains a very large number of Third-tier schools. Recently, the city decided to provide free lunch to all public-school students. This is certainly not the only major city to do so. Quoting from (Piccola, 9/6/2017):

By offering free lunch to all students, New York joins other major cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas, according to Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates, which had organized a campaign in support of the policy. But New York [with 1,100,000 students] has far more school children to feed than any of those other cities.

Final Remarks

Our Top-tier schools compete with the best in the world, and our Third-tier schools are a disgrace to our nation. This problem cannot be solved merely by attempting to directly improve the schools and by establishing still more standards that schools “have to meet.”

The problem is much larger than the schools themselves. Many children growing up in poverty are already considerably behind other students before they begin school. During their schooling years, their home environments and life outside of school are much less supportive of getting a good education than for more affluent students.

It is not the children’s fault that they are living in poverty and lack the benefits of growing up in a more affluent home environment and in a good neighborhood. While schooling is an important component of helping to overcome such problems, schools by themselves cannot solve these societal problems

What You Can Do

I assume that you are interested in helping all children in your country and throughout the rest of the world to get a good education. I also assume that you want all children to have a decent quality of life.

Whatever efforts you are making or decide to make in helping this to happen, please do not be drawn into the blame game and divisive politics. Look for and support activities that you are quite sure actually help children!

References and Resources

ASCD (n.d.). Elementary and Secondary Education Act. American Society for Child Development. Retrieved 10/27/2017 from

Cuban, L. (10/26/2017). Larry Cuban on school reform and classroom practice: What is success and failure in schooling? (Part 2) Retrieved 10/28/2017 from

Cuban, L. (10/25/2017). Larry Cuban on school reform and classroom practice: What is success and failure in schooling? (Part 3) Retrieved 10/28/2017 from

Cuban, L. (10/23/2017). Larry Cuban on school reform and classroom practice: What is success and failure in schooling? (Part 1) Retrieved 10/28/2017 from

Dillon, S. (12/15/2011). Failure rate of schools overstated, study says. The New York Times. Retrieved 10/27/2017 from

Moursund, D. (5/1/2014). Hungry children—America's shame. IAE Blog.  Retrieved 10/30/2017 from

NCCP (n.d.) Child poverty. National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved 10/27/2017 from

Piccoli, S. (9/6/2017). New York City offers free lunch for all public school students. The New York Times. Retrieved 10/27/2017 from

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