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Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots: Improving America’s Urban Schools

reviewed by Douglas E. Mitchell - 2004

coverTitle: Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots: Improving America’s Urban Schools
Author(s): Larry Cuban & Michael Usdan (Editors)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807742929 , Pages: 192, Year: 2003
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This book develops and analyzes case studies of educational reform in six major urban centers – Chicago, Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.  The focus is on educational governance, particularly on the relationship between educational governance and the broader civic governance involving mayors, city-state relationships, and the involvement of business and professional interest groups.  Conducted within the last couple of years, the case studies offer timely and reasonably detailed sketches of what is currently happening in efforts to reform urban school governance.  The big story in all but the Baltimore case is the re-establishment of civic control over the schools, putting an end to decades of Progressive/Urban Reform governance structures created to insulate schools from the supposedly corrupting influences of partisan politics and city government or business control over resources, personnel, and policies.  These cases argue that the nation is undergoing a virtual collapse of the Progressive ideals of neutral professionalism and civil service protection for educators – ideals that guided the reforms described by Lawrence Cremin (1961) in The Transformation of the School and provided the corner stones for building what David Tyack (1974) called The One Best System

The tone of the case studies is surprisingly positive, generally suggesting that the resurgence of control by general purpose civic government promises substantial change in school operations with real possibilities for rather dramatic improvement in school performance.  Where concerns are expressed regarding this reform process they focus not on the character or direction of reform, but on its depth and sustainability.  The cases generally interpret their data as documenting the unfolding dynamic relationships among relatively small groups of individuals close to the centers of the formal organizations comprising school systems and civic governance – big city mayors, school superintendents, business leaders, governors, and teacher union leaders.

The question of sustainability is seen primarily as a function of the willingness of civic government actors to remain focused on education policy matters and the threats to persistence posed by turnover among key personnel – particularly school system superintendents whose careers are seen as likely casualties of urban political conflict.  But even when personnel changes have nothing to do with political tensions (as in the untimely death of Seattle’s superintendent, or the abrupt promotion of Pennsylvania’s governor to his federal role as Homeland Security Secretary) the threat to sustained reform direction and energy posed by key personnel changes is identified as a serious and pervasive feature of educational policy in the nation’s urban centers.

Two key features of the new urban politics of education policy stand out as one reads through these six case studies.  First, reform leadership is being drawn from broad civic governance structures – mayors and their staffs, re-energized business leadership, activated civic interest groups, and education focused links among federal, state, and city policy makers.  Second, critical staff roles in the school systems are being filled from new sources.  The new political leaders are relying more and more heavily on bringing into the schools individuals with little or no experience as educators.  Business CEOs, finance experts, experienced prosecutors, ex-military commanders, and individuals who have held high elected or appointed political offices are increasingly seen as promising candidates for school district leadership.

When Cuban and Usdan describe these changes as “Powerful Reforms,” they appear to be using this phrase in a political rather than an educational sense.  To be sure, many changes in school system operations are noted within the case study reports.  At the educational level, however, these changes do not present a coherent or sustained vision of how school performance is to be improved – at least not a vision that cuts across the six cases.  To the contrary, each case study describes the unfolding of school system changes that are largely local in character – the result of the personal commitments and emphases of the leaders who have acquired power in their local settings and subject to redirection whenever key personnel are changed.  Not only are the policies reported to be a bit idiosyncratic and potentially ephemeral, none of the case studies has identified clear and consistent positive trends in school performance.  Though many of the closely tracked policy initiatives are newly implemented, the case studies found no powerful legacies from changes initiated in earlier waves of reform stimulated by the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk.  Nor does one find notes regarding possible impacts from the still earlier reforms that broke across the educational landscape after the launching of the Russian sputnik in 1957.

There is something odd about a reform history that persistently sees the most recent round of reforms as promising and potentially powerful but is never able to find lasting effects from earlier reforms that were just as visibly challenging to the schools in their heyday.  In this regard, the counter-case presented in James Cibulka’s chapter on Baltimore offers a line of interpretation not emphasized in the otherwise thoughtful summary chapter offered by the book’s editors.  In Baltimore the reversal of the Progressive/Urban Reform emphasis on professionalizing school leadership and insulating it from the influence of urban civic government took place more than a decade before the case studies developed in this book were undertaken.  As Cibulka notes, in Baltimore, contemporary educational reform involves trying to re-establish the historic separation of education and civic governance – unlike the resurgence of civic government dominance documented in the other cities studied.  If Baltimore is not just an anomaly, it means that current reforms may not be driven (as the other cases tend to assume) by the embrace of specific new forms of educational governance, but rather by a need to break down and restructure whatever governance system is currently in place.  That is, the reformers may be dedicated primarily to changing existing power relationships, devoting the same energy to separating structures historically linked in some cities as is given to merging historically separate structures in others.  Changing the existing power structure may itself be the primary goal, not the means to develop some new or technically superior governance system.  And if this is so, it would be unwise to evaluate any reform strategy on the basis of the character of the governance structure which it champions.  Change will be championed, not for its technical virtues, but in order to move power into new hands.  It would be particularly important to ask from whom power is being taken and into whose hands it is being entrusted.

In this regard, the case studies do not document any substantial shifts in the distribution of educational benefits, at least not yet.  Educational attainment remains robustly linked to race, ethnicity, poverty, and sub-cultural identity.  Even as wave after wave of reform has washed across urban school systems there is little evidence that this pattern is being significantly altered.  Education in the urban centers has deteriorated in more or less direct proportion to the abandonment of the inner city by the American middle class and the creation of vast ghettos of poverty stricken, ethnically isolated and immigrant populations among newly arriving city population groups.   Perhaps the governance changes described in this book will lead to important new directions in educational practice as well as a shift in school politics, but there seems precious little evidence in these case studies that the future holds more than a tenuous and contested shift toward placing education policy into the hands of the same governance structures that have brought us housing segregation, ghettos of the “truly disadvantaged,” deteriorating infrastructures, weak civic services, suburbanized elites, and weak urban economies.

School professionals and urban reformers should be challenged and probably quite troubled by reading this book.  It describes dramatic political changes that are grounded in the near collapse of confidence in the capacity of urban schools to meet the needs of the next generation of Americans.  But there is not much evidence that these changes are leading to either school system stability or substantial improvements in school performance.


Cremin, Lawrence A. (1961).  The transformation of the school:  Progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

National Commission of Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Tyack, David B. (1974).  The one best system:  A history of American urban education.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 323-326
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11172, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:51:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Douglas Mitchell
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    Douglas E. Mitchell is a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside. His primary area of interest is education policy formation and implementation.
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