Tinkering Toward Utopia
with Larry Cuban

During Alder GSE’s annual fall retreat, staff and faculty were joined by education scholar Dr. Larry Cuban (Emeritus Professor, Stanford University). Dr. Cuban served as the keynote speaker, guiding the Alder community through a discussion anchored in his seminal work Tinkering Toward Utopia, co-authored with David Tyack. Tinkering explores the processes, structures, and impacts of school reform throughout the 20th century. It is a foundational text read by teacher candidates in the Alder teacher residency program.

Throughout the afternoon, we engaged in discussion with Dr. Cuban about his conception of the “grammar of schooling” and its relationship to education reform in the United States. The grammar of schooling, argue Cuban and Tyack, is defined by the organizational regularities of the American schooling experience that the public has come to expect (e.g. age-graded classrooms, one classroom with one teacher).

Since the vast majority of American adults experienced K-12 schooling as students themselves, it is through these individual lenses that Americans create a vision of what school should be and how schooling should (or shouldn’t) change. It is a unique institution in this sense. Public education is something that is shared, and thus serves as a common connection between us. Although this common experience looks vastly different depending on many factors, we all leave school with feelings and opinions on what school ought to be. And these feelings and opinions often confront, and conflict with, desires for reform. Examples of reforms, including the rise of “New Math” in the 1970s and the more recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), confront what “real school” looks like. These reforms can feel dichotomous in nature, simultaneously stagnant and changing, and even cyclical.

This conversation felt important for the Alder Graduate School of Education community as we continue to unpack the historical context of education in our country in order to best prepare teachers for the future in which they will be working. Alder’s impact will increase every year as more Alder-trained teachers affect more students. Dr. Cuban’s body of work, and Tinkering Towards Utopia, will continue to be a resource for staff, faculty, and residents to reflect on America’s history of education and prepare teachers who will work within an ever-evolving school reform landscape.

To see Larry Cuban’s most up-to-date work and research, explore his blog.