On Preserving the K-12 Governance Model, despite Reform Efforts

Larry Cuban

The notion of institutions adopting reforms in order to maintain stability—sometimes called “dynamic conservatism”—captures how U.S. public schools, especially in big cities have embraced new policies (e.g., charter schools, Common Core standards, new technologies) signaling stakeholders that schools are, indeed, changing. Yet those districts and schools have left untouched essential structures that make U.S. schools the way they are (and have been for over a century) such as residential segregation, school revenue derived from property assessment, age-graded schools, self-contained classrooms, student promotion, and retention, textbooks, and state tests. [ii]

Without attending to these basic structures, entrepreneurial donors in their pursuit of particular reforms reinforce the stability of the very organizations they want to transform. Not intended to be Machiavellian or even necessarily planned, school districts have learned to maintain overall stability in structures, cultures, and practices—the status quo–in the face of strong external pressures by selectively adopting reforms.

Consider the example of grant-giving strengthening the status quo that occurred in the early 20th century when Northern white donors gave money to improve what was then called “colored” or “Negro” education in the South. John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and others gave grants to improve black education by building schools, helping teachers gain more knowledge and learn pedagogy, and raising teacher salaries. In aiding black communities improve schooling for their children, however, these donors gave the money directly to white school boards who then dispersed funds sparingly to black principals, teachers, and communities. In effect, these grants maintained the Jim Crow system of separate schooling for blacks and whites. Positive, negative, and perverse outcomes were rolled into one. [iii]