Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform


reviewed by John L. Rury - 1997

coverTitle: Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform
Author(s): David Tyack, Larry Cuban
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674892836, Pages: 196, Year: 1995
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School reform has been a feature of public life in this country for more than two hundred years. As long as schools have been linked to the peculiar American ideology of improvement through education, it seems, someone has been trying to invent a better school. David Tyack and Larry Cuban have examined the course of educational reform over the past century, with a view toward informing current and future reform efforts. Theirs is hardly an exhaustive treatment of the topic; indeed, as a work of historical scholarship it is largely a sketch of certain predominant themes. But more important, they offer a framework for interpreting reform, past and present, which no doubt will be influential for years to come.


Ever responsible historians, Tyack and Cuban point out that schools have changed in dramatic ways over the past century, and that much "reform" has worked to create the multifaceted yet highly standardized educational system we have today. Along the way a great many alternative visions were offered and a few novel ideas actually found their way into practice. For the most part, however, the tale Tyack and Cuban tell is not a happy one for would-be reformers. Once the basic elements of the present system were in place–such features as nine-month school terms, interchangeable course units, and teacher-centered classrooms–schools have proven remarkably resistant to wholesale change. When changes do occur, they have tended to be incremental, adding to the existing mode of schooling rather than altering it.


Of course, there has been much talk in the past century about educational reform, but Tyack and Cuban suggest that it has borne rather little on what actually happens in schools. Indeed, their distinction between "policy talk" and actual policymaking in schools is an important contribution of the book (and a theme in the earlier work of both authors). It is not clear, for instance, whether the intense debates between progressive educators and their conservative opponents really affected the classrooms of most American teachers. And such educational technologies as motion pictures, radios, and even computers have not altered the basic shape of the educational enterprise, despite the occasionally grandiose claims made by their promoters. Tyack and Cuban suggest that much policy talk about schools often seems to lack appreciation for the historical processes that created the existing educational system, and hence ultimately proves ineffectual.


In a telling chapter on the fate of educational reforms that are implemented, Tyack and Cuban argue that most such innovations become integrated into the existing system, usually without effecting dramatic changes. The two chief examples they cite are the kindergarten and the junior high school, both considered fundamental reforms when first implemented. In time, however, each of these new forms of schooling, designed for the needs of particular groups of children, came to be seen as routine steps in the larger educational system. Both were modified to better serve the grades above them. Without changes in the larger system, incremental changes such as these are not likely to retain whatever radical flavor they started with. In school reform, it seems, there is a grand regression toward the mean.


Another chapter considers the fate of yet other reforms that attempted to offer new ideas for organizing the entire system of instruction. Here too, reformers fought an uphill battle, and few of these efforts appear to have exerted lasting influence. Tyack and Cuban describe the experience of the Dalton Plan, which attempted to offer high school students greater freedom and individual choice in designing curricula. Difficulties arose, however, when students transferred to other schools or applied to colleges. The existence of a larger system within which all schools must function proved to be a debilitating condition that ultimately hobbled even the most drastic reform initiatives.


Tyack and Cuban argue that more was at work in these cases, however, than simply the logic of systemic resistance to change. They also point to fixed public conceptions of proper schooling, which led to low tolerance for reforms of the sort the Dalton schools represented. Yet another factor, of course, was the teachers who worked in these schools. Allowing (indeed, encouraging) greater curricular freedom in the Dalton schools meant more work for teachers, as did such other innovations as open classrooms and "new" math. Tyack and Cuban maintain that this is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to school reform. Without changes in the ways teachers work or are compensated, many reforms place great burdens on the very people who are responsible for making innovation successful: the teachers.


In the end Tyack and Cuban tell a cautionary tale. School reform is unlikely to succeed without involving educators. When the present educational system was in its formative stages, at the end of the nineteenth century, massive systemic reform was possible. Tyack and Cuban suggest it is far more difficult today.


The Tyack and Cuban thesis about the effect of the larger educational system, public expectations, and the influence of educators on school reform will have to be tested by further research on the history of reform–and by experience. This book provides a rich agenda for scholars interested in reform issues. In the meantime, prospective school reformers would be well advised to consult this important volume.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 3, 1997, p. 567-569
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9652, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:14:06 PM

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