Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Customization and the Common Good: A Conversation with Larry Cuban

    Today's trend toward customizing education conflicts with thelong-standing norms of standardization and uniformity. In balancing theseapproaches, we must remember the basic aims of education—to provideboth individual and social benefits.

      Educator and historian Larry Cuban has explored issuesrelated to the purposes of public education in such publications asTinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public SchoolReform (coauthored with David Tyack; Harvard University Press, 1997)and Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping withIntractable Dilemmas (coedited with Dorothy Shipps; StanfordUniversity Press, 2000).
      In this interview with Educational Leadership, Cubantalks about the tension between two dominant trends in education:customization and standardization. He analyzes how these two trends workagainst each other and how they affect the delicate balance of publicschools' responsibilities to provide individual benefits, to supply theworkplace with good employees, and to prepare students forcitizenship.
      What accounts for the widespread interest in customizinge ducation—in creating schools that offer unique experiences for students—even in an era of standardization?
      The value of individual freedom of choice, which is so basic to U.S.culture, spills over to schools. The United States has, at heart, a consumerculture, so the notion of picking what you want is powerful. Freedom ofchoice—whether it's a parent choosing a school or a group ofparents and teachers tailoring a school to their particular beliefs—isvery familiar. Another reason is the deep understanding that there are manykinds of good schools.
      Today, the idea of customizing runs hard up against the strong impulse foruniformity and standardization in schooling that has grown in this countryduring the past 20 years.
      We tend to think that a service tailored to the individual is better. Does that hold true for public education?
      The short answer is “yes and no.” That's because publicschools provide two kinds of benefits in Americansociety—individual benefits andsocial benefits.
      For parents and students, the answer is yes. By attending school, studentsearn credentials that give them a passkey into the workplace. Kids in oursociety need a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, sometimes amaster's degree, and sometimes a doctorate. All of those credentials arebenefits that flow to the individual.
      But then there are the social benefits that taxpayers and leaders havehistorically attributed to the role of public schools in a democracy, goingback to Thomas Jefferson. These are common goods or public goods, such asbuilding good citizens and preparing people for the workplace.
      So yes, the individual is considered important in tax-supported publicschools. Meeting the needs of each individual student is part of the mind-setof educators. And parents certainly want their kids tohave individual attention. The impulse to customize schooling stems from thisemphasis on the individual. At the same time, there's a deep concernthat we need something that's common to all schools to ensure the socialbenefits of schooling. Learning to get along with others and respectingopinions different from the ones learned at home are crucial skills for civicaction. The tensions between competing goals for public schools have alwaysexisted in U.S. public education.
      Public schools are responsible for providing both kinds ofbenefits—individual and social. At certain times in our history, onehas received more emphasis than the other. Right now, there's far moreemphasis on public schools serving parents' needs for credentials fortheir sons and daughters, which merges with the common good in preparingstudents for the information-based workplace. But few speak about theimportance of cultivating civic virtue in the young, a crucial commongood.
      What kinds of customizing should schools pursue, and why?
      If schools can customize to individualize instruction and increaselearning, their doing so is a clear plus. Any efforts to break down largeschools into smaller schools to individualize curriculum and instruction areimportant. If you want to make sure that all students can read by the end of3rd grade, then individualization is vital.
      But every time you try to do these things, you smack hard against the lackof resources. When you have class sizes of 30–35, the notion ofcustomizing is ridiculous. When you have classes with 20 or fewer students,then you have more latitude to try to customize for parts of the schoolday.
      What is gained—and what is lost—when schools forge a special identity, such as focusing on a schoolwide theme? How do students benefit, and how might they be harmed?
      Because motivation is such an important issue in compulsory education,anything that gets students highly engaged in intellectual endeavors isimportant. Kids may be more engaged if a school is geared to atheme—environmental health orhelping the community. The problem is that often thesethemes are the brainchildren of particular groups of teachers and parents,and they get frozen in time. They don't evolve; they don't change askids move through the school over time.
      In our mobile society, does it make sense for schools to tailor themselves to the community, or could that approach be limiting to students?
      The answer is, again, “yes and no.” It depends to what degreethe schools tailor and customize and whether they are ignoring the commonelements that I mentioned earlier that are necessary in tax-supported publicschools. For example, a program that primarily aims to reproduce an ethnic orreligious group's beliefs and practices, some of which undermine alarger civic identity, is one form of customizing that is out of bounds inpublic schools.
      We're talking about a balance between individual and public needs, andwe expect enlightened teachers and principals exercising their judgments tostrike that balance. Most tax-supported public schools have school boards,and the trustees decide how best to use the funds to prepare students for theeconomy and the workplace and for citizenship while balancing the strongparental quest for social mobility for their children. Educators need to makebalanced judgments.
      A larger question is that with so much mobility, shouldn't there be acommon curriculum for all students? Again, we need to strike a balancebetween common goods, individual needs, and local context.
      We've talked about the urge to customize. What is driving the urge to standardize?
      During the past quarter century—going back to the late1970s—civic and business leaders have expressed a growing sense thatpublic schools have to help the U.S. economy do well in global competition.These leaders are very sure that public schools must help train the futureworkforce for an information-based workplace. The Nation atRisk report in 1983 was a marker of those beliefs.
      The application of business principles to education has led to a lot ofstandardization. The idea of national goals, the notions that we need moreefficiency in the conduct of schooling, that schools have to be moreaccountable, that you need a bottom line—these ideas all stem from theimpulse to make schools a handmaiden of the economy.
      Is this urge also driven by our looking at other countries that are more standardized in their schooling?
      Certainly. A Nation at Risk used international teststo prove that U.S. schools were falling behind and therefore weakening theUnited States in the global economy. The international comparisons areconstant—although they keep shifting. Remember, it was Japan in the1980s, and you don't hear so many comparisons to Japan today.
      Is the standards movement hampering educators' attempts to customize? Do you think these two trends—customizing and standardizing—are in conflict?
      I certainly do. Those trends represent conflicting values—almostincompatible values.
      Here's a classic example: In New York State, a group ofschools—alternative schools, charter schools—wanted to useperformance-based assessments rather than the existing Regents exams. Theyasked for a waiver, but the commissioner of education denied them the waiver.So these schools feel that to prepare students for these high-stakes Regentsexams—to meet that external requirement—they will have to changesome of their academic programs and some of the customization that they havedone.
      There are plenty of other examples where schools that depart from theconventional have to set aside time to prepare students for the district orstate exam because they don't want their students to be penalized by it.Or they're giving up creative approaches to subject matter that are notconsistent with the curriculum and performance standards of the state.
      Do we risk eroding citizenship and the common good if we customize education offerings?
      I really don't think so. We don't have a common school per senow. How many big cities have students from all social classes, fromdifferent ethnic and racial groups, attending school together? Perhaps thathappens in parts of some cities and small towns, but that pattern is atypical.The “common school of all classes, all groups” attending schooltogether doesn't exist very much. What we do have are ideals of a commoneducation that will make people productive workers and civic-minded adults,but a system of practices pitched toward earning credentials to advance eachchild's economic future. Customizing schools won't cut into thatterribly.
      Should we be doing more to achieve the ideal of mixing different kinds of people instead of letting them self-sort into different schools?
      My personal opinion? Of course! You know, the Browndecision is coming up on its 48th birthday, and I believe that theBrown decision had it right. Racial, ethnic, and classisolation, which exists in many big cities and suburbs, is not ultimately goodfor the nation.
      Theme-based schools, charter schools, magnets, online education—what is the promise and what are the potential drawbacks of these options?
      The promise for all these options is that they encourage diverse ways ofschooling kids and a multiplicity of good schools. That heterogeneity is aplus, in my judgment. The negative is that these options could proliferatemindlessly with no common threads to hold them together—without thecommon good that I mentioned earlier. In fact, a lot of these customizingideas, such as charter schools, end up duplicating the class stratificationthat already exists in the United States.
      Why does this stratification happen?
      Parents and teachers who set up charter schools want to have a certain kindof customized schooling, which attracts people who are like them. So you endup with the same kind of social stratification that already exists in thelarger society. It's not caused by bad intentions or by conscious plan ordesign—but a lot of these customized experiments don't break downthe existing segregated patterns.
      Sometimes people raise questions about the admission criteria used by high-profile customized schools. How can we decide what criteria are fair?
      Usually these are wonderful schools, and people should appreciate them. Butpeople should also appreciate that highly selective schools within publicschool systems end up reflecting the social stratification of thatcommunity.
      We're a democracy, so a school's admission criteria have to bemade public. If people have produced a school that is predominantly white andaffluent, and the community wants a different kind of school that is stillselective, then the school needs to develop admission criteria that willbroaden the social composition of that school. That discussion must be apublic discussion because we're dealing with tax funds.
      What have we learned from the charter schools movement?
      Charter schools offer parents alternatives within the public arena.I'm highly supportive of that kind of choice, particularly to giveparents in low-income areas an alternative. There hasn't yet been acritical mass of charter schools in any particular place to show whether theycan have a substantial influence on the regular system.
      Charter schools are like businesses, and it's hellishly difficult tostart one and sustain it over time. Many new businesses die every year. Isuspect the mortality rate among charter schools is equally high. Butit's a worthwhile direction to take because it energizes groups ofteachers, parents, and students and that kind of energy is crucial to thepublic enterprise. Yet attention must also be given in these alternatives tothe tension between cultivating the individual and the public good.
      Is it easier to justify the use of school vouchers in an area—an urban area, for example—where the regular public schools are of poor quality?
      I'm opposed to school vouchers because they can be used to go toprivate schools and religious schools. They break down the wall betweenchurch and state. I have seen very little evidence to support the theory thatthe competition created by vouchers will improve public schools. I prefer thecultivation of more public choices rather than more private choices.
      Are you persuaded by arguments that for an individual family, the voucher might enable parents to get a better education for their child?
      I am sympathetic to that concern. Therefore, public schools within bigcities and low-income neighborhoods have to improve. Also, there should bemore choices among schools in those areas. Charter schools can flourishthere if funding is made available for them.
      There are other choices, too. At the federal level, some low-income parentscan get federally funded housing vouchers, which they can use to move toanother neighborhood. In Chicago, low-income families have used housingvouchers to relocate to school districts that are more in keeping with whatthey want for their children. There are far too few housing vouchers availablefor families.
      I understand the desperation of low-income families in areas where theschools are failing so badly. But public charter schools and housing vouchersoffer some choice to individual families.
      Do we just have to live with a certain amount of tension between the individual benefits and the social benefits of public schooling?
      Yes. This is a persistent dilemma in public schooling. We learn to livewith it, but we have to keep making changes to cope with it because societyis constantly changing. These tensions don't go away.
      For the past 20 years, the focus has been on preparing students for theworkplace and developing a common academic curriculum so that everyone couldbe prepared for a globally competitive workplace. That emphasis has been sostrong that it has actually shoved aside another important purpose for U.S.tax-supported public schools, which is civic engagement. I hear a lot of talkabout the importance of preparing students for citizenship, but I see verylittle action.
      Do you have hopes that the balance will be restored?
      Yes, because many people raise these points. State court cases—therewas one in New York, one in New Jersey, one in California—have arguedthat urban students are not receiving enough school funds to make themcivically engaged. A lot of people are raising these issues now, saying,“We've been going down this road of worker preparation, andthat's important, but we have lost sight of a primary purpose of U.S.schools.”

      Scott Willis is a former contributor to ASCD.

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      From our issue
      Product cover image 102277.jpg
      Customizing Our Schools
      Go To Publication