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Utopian Rhetoric Again and Again: American DNA or the Failure of School Reformers To Kick the Habit

by Larry Cuban - June 01, 2010

This commentary examines recent utopian claims for transforming public schools through technology and the current Obama administration reform agenda.

Two metaphors compete in my mind in trying to explain the constant habit of Americans engaging in utopian claims for transforming schools. One is that utopian rhetoric is in the DNA of being American; the other is the disease of addiction—smoking, alcohol, and other harmful drugs. I am uncertain which metaphor best captures the current rhetoric about transformed schools being just around the corner.  


To assess current utopian rhetoric about the future of public schools, I offer two examples. First, I examine a few of the claims made by high-profile authors that massive technological changes in information and communication over the past quarter-century is about to revolutionize K-12 schools. Second, I examine a claim by President Obama that education is the best anti-poverty program that federal and state governments can mount for a society in which poverty has increased and income inequalities have gotten larger, not smaller.

First, the books: Paul Peterson, Saving Schools; Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, Rethinking Education in an Age of Technology, and the newly released National Education Technology Plan. The authors acknowledge that while schools have certainly adopted new hardware like cell phones, laptops, and interactive whiteboards and clever applications like wikis, blogs, and interactive games, most teachers have yet to integrate these devices and software in their daily lessons. These authors, however, leave no doubt that it really doesn’t matter what teachers do or do not do in their classrooms. Other forms of learning through new technologies in the workplace, private sector, and community are on the cusp of revolutionizing schools.

These books are studded with promises of a glorious future for children and youth in experiencing new forms of learning that are customized to fit each and every student. One example will give you the flavor of these promises.

People around the world are taking their education out of school into homes, libraries, Internet cafes, and workplaces where they can decide what they want to learn, where they want to learn, and how they want to learn…. We see the seeds of a new education system forming in the rapid growth of new learning alternatives … that will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues. (Collins and Halverson, pp. 2-3)

Sound familiar? We have heard both the melody and lyrics before. Although those who predict transformed public schools are just around the corner call upon history to bolster their claims, the history they construct is filled with memory holes.


While authors may trumpet a new order of individually tailored teaching and learning, nothing much happens since words on paper often fail to be converted into actions. Not so for my second example. The utopian rhetoric I refer to occurred in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address six months ago.

Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.

Consider that last sentence. To promote a “world-class education” the President and his Secretary of Education seek to increase the numbers of charter schools, reward teachers whose students have done well on tests, turnaround thousands of failing urban schools, and insure that everyone goes to college. That “world-class” education will have to deal with about 40 million poor Americans in 2008. That is 13.2 percent of population—the highest rate since 1997.1

Given these figures and the inexorable collateral damages accompanying poverty, one would think that:

The best anti-poverty program would help mothers and fathers move from unemployment into worthwhile jobs with sufficient income to support their families.

The best anti-poverty program would take those adults whose jobs have been lost through outsourcing to other countries or restructured out of existence and re-train them for other jobs.

The best anti-poverty programs would provide tax credits or direct support of child-care, health insurance for working parents, and ample financial aid packages for parents to send their sons and daughters to college.

In short, I would think that is preferable, even efficient, to help adults directly now rather than indirectly through schooling their children, thereby waiting another generation.  

Of course, it is not an either-or choice. To those familiar with the past, Americans have had an unvarnished faith in education solving collective and individual problems. Education has always been part of any package of federal and state efforts aimed at reducing poverty, as it was nearly a half-century ago when President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched a “war on poverty.” He said: “The answer to all of our national problems comes down to a single word: education.”

In the late 1950s, the percentage of Americans in poverty reached a high of over 20 percent and then fell by 1969 to 12 percent. That was a swift and stunning reduction in poverty.2 In those years, employment expanded, Medicare arrived, job-training programs multiplied, and, yes, those were also the years when the Johnson Administration established the Job Corps, Head Start, Upward Bound, and many other education and community-related programs.


Today, there are federal and state subsidies for pre-school programs, unemployment relief, tax credits, and college financial aid packages scattered across different agencies but still hardly enough to dent poverty in America.

So for the President and his Secretary of Education to label a program championing more charter schools, pay for performance, turning around failing high schools, and sending everyone to college as the “best anti-poverty program” around for a “world-class education,” those words mimic the inflated rhetoric of earlier generations of reformers who, like the President, shared a deep faith in education as a universal solvent for poverty and other national problems.

Like our President, those earlier generations of reformers targeted schools as a solution to the national problem of poverty and avoided the hard, political work of either fixing those socioeconomic structures that sustain poverty and striking inequalities in wealth or funding comprehensive programs of support for low-income adults—or both. The President’s assertion is, again, a familiar attempt of putting on the school’s shoulders national problems that will defer solutions to the next generation and, in doing so, offer a feel-good band-aid that diverts attention from existing inequities, including the persistence of poverty.

I offer these recent books on glamorous technological futures and the President’s recent State of the Union address to illustrate that utopian claims for a new and better schooling are alive and well at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

In Tinkering toward Utopia, David Tyack and I compared this kind of reform rhetoric with institutional trends that revealed, time and again, the persistence of what we called the “grammar of schooling,” or the organizational continuities that are so familiar to us who have gone to school and for our children and grandchildren who are now in school. We still see self-contained classrooms of 25-30 students with a teacher, weekly tests, homework, textbooks, the Carnegie unit, academic departments in high schools, and annual promotion to the next grade. These historical continuities exist in U.S. schools because they are anchored in pervasive social beliefs shared by most Americans about what a “real school” is. These beliefs, school structures, and practices have been the target of many reformers. Yet after many decades of new policies being adopted, dollars spent, and efforts to change these structures, practices, and beliefs—they still persist.3

They persist even amid actual changes in “real schools.” But these changes that have occurred have been piecemeal and incremental, often made by teachers who nipped and tucked here and there while adding twists and new ideas to create hybrids of old and new. Go into many schools today and you will see teachers using laptops at their desks or interactive whiteboards for instruction—clearly changes in what teachers have available technologically—yet the classroom furniture and arrangements, the tasks students do daily, and the homework are familiar to the eye and memory of earlier days spent in school.  

In offering current utopian rhetoric about an impending digital revolution in American schooling or education as the best anti-poverty program, the addiction to utopian rhetoric persists.

Perhaps the metaphor of drug addiction is less accurate than simply saying that unrelenting optimism is built into the DNA of American character. U.S. history of school reform shows again and again that policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and parents share the unyielding propensity for grand claims about a future that falls far short of the rhetoric. And that rhetoric is addicting.


1. Institute for Research on Poverty: “Who Is Poor?” September 2009. http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq3.htm#state)

2. http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq3.htm#state)

3. Mary Metz, Real School: A Universal Drama Amid Disparate Experience," in D. Mitchell and M.E. Goertz, eds., Educational Politics for the New Century: The Twentieth Anniversary Yearbook of the Politics of Education Association, Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1990, pp. 75-91.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 01, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15997, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:04:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Larry Cuban
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    LARRY CUBAN is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (2010) is his most recent book. He blogs regularly at: http://larrycuban.wordpress.com
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