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America's education debate hinges upon our definition of 'good schools'

author: Larry Cuban
submitter: Carol Fry Bohlin
description: Cuban asks the question, "What is a good school?" and argues that the core duty of tax-supported public schools in a democracy is to pass on to the next generation democratic attitudes, values and behaviors. All good schools, he argues, seek to accomplish these paramount and essential tasks. What is different on the surface is the relative weight that schools place on these goals, how they go about putting into practice what they seek, and what words they use to describe what they do.

Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University. He wrote this article for the San Jose Mercury News (8/31/98).

published in: San Jose Mercury News
published: 08/01/1998
posted to site: 09/24/1998

Why is it so hard to get good schools?

To answer this question, I will begin by offering portraits of two local schools I know well, then examining how each might be a "good" school.

School A is a quiet, orderly school where students and parents honor the teachers' authority. The principal and faculty seek student and parental advice when making schoolwide decisions.

Academic standards are high and require strong study habits from the culturally diverse student population. Drill and practice are parts of each teacher's daily lesson.

Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. A banner in the school says: "Free, Monday through Friday: Knowledge. Bring Your Own Container." It is what many would call a "traditional" school.

School B prizes freedom. Most classrooms are mixed in age, grouping 6- to 9-year-olds and 7- to 11-year-olds. Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects and trusts children to make the right choices.

There are no spelling bees, no accelerated reading programs, no letter or numerical grades. Instead, a teacher describes each student's personal growth in a year-end narrative. The only standardized tests are those required by the state.

A banner in the classroom reads: "Children need a place to run! Explore! A world to discover." It is what many would call a "progressive" school.

Both good schools

I will argue that schools A and B are both "good" schools. Though their values and approaches differ toward knowledge, teaching, learning and freedom, both have been in existence for 25 years and enjoyed unwavering support:

  • Annual surveys of parent and student opinion register praise.
  • Each has a waiting list.
  • Teacher turnover is virtually nil.
  • Both schools have enviable academic records as measured by standardized tests; School A is in the top 10 schools in the state, while School B is in the upper quartile.

These schools differ dramatically in how teachers organize their classrooms, view learning and teach the curriculum. Can both be "good"?

The answer is yes.

Different, but equal

What makes these two schools -- so different in their values, divergent in how teachers view learning and organize their classrooms -- both "good"?

Both schools have stable staffs committed to core beliefs about what is best for students and the community.

Parents' beliefs mirror those of the staffs. Competent people work together and take the time to make it all happen.

"Traditional" vs. "progressive" is irrelevant to them. The century-long war of words over traditional vs. progressive schooling is a cul-de-sac, a dead-end of an argument that needs to be retired once and for all.

The pendulum-like swing between traditional and progressive schooling is really a deeper political conflict over what role schools should play in society. Should schools in a democracy primarily concentrate on making citizens who fulfill their civic duties? Should schools focus on efficiently preparing students with skills and credentials to get jobs and maintain a healthy economy?

Or should schools do everything they can to develop the personal and social capabilities of each and every child?

For almost two centuries of tax-supported public schooling in the United States, all of these goals have been viewed as both important and achievable.

The war of words between progressives and traditionalists has been a proxy for this struggle over goals.

Battles over discipline, testing, uniforms and tracking students by performance mask a more fundamental tension in the United States over which goals for public schools should have priority.

Yet the idea that there are many kinds of "good" schools has yet to take a firm hold among policy makers, parents and educators in the United States.

Ideological wars over homework, phonics and the new math -- all framed in terms of traditional vs. progressive -- blind us to what is really good about a school.

The problem is not that we don't know how to make schools better. Many parents and educators already know what they want and have the knowledge and skills to get it, and Schools A and B are examples of that knowledge in action.

The problem is that these ideological wars divert us from more essential discussions of quality.

Goals to pursue

Of course, it is important to determine what goals public schools should pursue. Setting priorities among school goals is a political process of making choices that involves policy makers, school officials, taxpayers, and parents.

Deciding what is important and how much should be allocated to it is at the heart of the process.

Political parties, lobbies, and citizen groups vie for voters' attention. Both bickering and deliberation arise from the process.

This is a struggle over values that must be worked out in elections for public office, tax referendums and open debate in civic meetings, newspapers and TV talk shows. That debate is worthwhile

. "Good," though, is another matter altogether. Making a school "good" is not a problem that can be solved by experts or scientific investigation or squabbles over whether progressive or traditional schools are better.

That is why I began with my descriptions of the two schools. They represent a way out of this futile struggle.

The traditional school concentrates on passing on to children the best knowledge, skills and values in society. The progressive one focuses on students' personal and social development.

Not inconsistent

Yet -- and this is the important point -- these seemingly different goals are not inconsistent. They derive from a deeply embedded, but seldom noticed, common framework of what parents and taxpayers want their public schools to achieve.

That framework is the core duty of tax-supported public schools in a democracy: to pass on to the next generation democratic attitudes, values and behaviors.

Too often we take for granted the linkage between the schools that we have and the kind of civic life that we want for ourselves and our children.

America's system of free public schools was not established to get jobs for graduates or to replace family or church. It was established 150 years ago to make sure that children would grow into literate adults who respected authority, made reasoned judgments, accepted differences of opinions and fulfilled their civic duties to participate in the political life of their communities.

Over time, of course, as conditions in the United States have changed, other responsibilities were added to the charter of public schools. But the core duty of public education -- past and present -- remains to turn students into citizens who can independently reason through difficult decisions, defend what they have decided and honor the rule of law.

All good schools, whether traditional or progressive, seek to accomplish these paramount and essential tasks.

What is different on the surface is the relative weight that schools place on these goals, how they go about putting into practice what they seek, and what words they use to describe what they do.

Essential values

Consider such essential democratic values as individual freedom and respect for authority.

In School A, students have freedom in many activities as long as they remain within the clear boundaries established by teachers. The staff sets rules for behavior and academic performance, but students and parents are consulted; students accept the limits easily, even enjoying the bounded freedom that such rules gave them.

School A's teachers and parents believe self-discipline grows best when freedom has limits and when students learn what knowledge previous generations counted as important.

From these principles, students develop respect for the rule of law and strive to become active citizens.

School B places more emphasis on children's individual freedom to create, diverge from the group and work at their own pace. Children work on projects they design individually over the year. Students respect teachers' authority but often ask why certain things must be done.

Teachers give reasons and, on occasion, negotiate over what must be done and how. School B's teachers and parents believe self-discipline, regard for authority and future civic responsibility evolve out of a broader freedom.

Thus, I would argue that both traditional and progressive schools prize individual freedom and respect for authority, but they define each value differently in how they organize the school, view the curriculum and engage in teaching.

Neither value is ignored. Parents, teachers and students accept the differences in how their school put these values into practice.

And each school, in its unique way, cultivates the deeper democratic attitudes of openmindedness, respect for others' values, treating others decently and making deliberate decisions.

No researcher will ever prove that one way of schooling is superior to the other.

Basis for judging

What counts in judging whether schools are "good" is whether they are discharging their primary duty to help students think and act democratically.

What we need to debate is not whether a school should be traditional or progressive, but whether a school succeeds in instilling within children the virtues that a democratic society must have in each generation.

Alas, current talk about goals in the United States is not about this core goal.

It is about being first in the world in scientific and mathematical prowess, or preparing students to use technology to get better jobs.

Little is said about the basic purpose of schooling, beyond a one-liner here or a paragraph there in an occasional speech by a top public official.


To evaluate schools' quality, we can ask several questions:

  • To what degree do graduates possess democratic behaviors, values and attitudes? Even -- or especially -- in the face of the technological revolution and economic globalization, students must be able to display those virtues in different situations during their careers as students and afterward.
  • To what degree has a school achieved its own explicit goals? By this criterion, traditional School A with its high test scores is a clear success; few existing tests or quantitative measures could capture the results at School B.
  • To what degree are parents, staff and students satisfied with what occurs in the school? This can be measured by satisfaction surveys and staff turnover.

Why is it so hard to get good schools in America? Because we have not examined carefully, deliberately and openly our different conceptions of "goodness" and how each notion is connected to democracy.

The "good" school has been elusive because of an unexamined bias toward only one version of what is good. It is time to end the fruitless debates over pedagogical methods and ideologies, to overcome the deeply buried but persistent impulse in the U.S. to create a "one best system," a solution for every problem.

But until Americans shed this view, the squabbles over whether a traditional schooling is better than progressive will continue.

Such a futile war of words ignores the fundamental purposes of public schooling as revitalizing democratic virtues in each generation -- and, most sadly, ignores the many good schools that already exist.