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Tinkering toward Utopia

Tinkering toward Utopia

A Century of Public School Reform

David Tyack, Larry Cuban

ISBN 9780674044524

Publication date: 07/01/2009

For over a century, Americans have translated their cultural anxieties and hopes into dramatic demands for educational reform. Although policy talk has sounded a millennial tone, the actual reforms have been gradual and incremental. Tinkering toward Utopia documents the dynamic tension between Americans’ faith in education as a panacea and the moderate pace of change in educational practices.

In this book, David Tyack and Larry Cuban explore some basic questions about the nature of educational reform. Why have Americans come to believe that schooling has regressed? Have educational reforms occurred in cycles, and if so, why? Why has it been so difficult to change the basic institutional patterns of schooling? What actually happened when reformers tried to “reinvent” schooling?

Tyack and Cuban argue that the ahistorical nature of most current reform proposals magnifies defects and understates the difficulty of changing the system. Policy talk has alternated between lamentation and overconfidence. The authors suggest that reformers today need to focus on ways to help teachers improve instruction from the inside out instead of decreeing change by remote control, and that reformers must also keep in mind the democratic purposes that guide public education.


  • No society has ever, at any time, tried to bring such a variety of people to so high a level of proficiency as this country has, or come as close to success as we have. American educational criticism suffers from a shocking lack of perspective, historical and cross-cultural… David Tyack and Larry Cuban…do recognize [this fact], and it’s that understanding that makes their aptly titled book so important… Surely the message Tyack and Cuban are trying to deliver is crucial: understand the political nature of school reform; involve teachers; understand how complex the process is and how much thought and patience it takes; learn from the past. When we try to use radical school reform to solve whatever public problem seems most urgent—that endless cycle of educational crisis, utopian demand and disillusionment—we fail both our schools and our society.

    —Peter Schrag, The Nation


  • David B. Tyack (1930–2016) was Vida Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, and Professor of History, Emeritus, at Stanford University.
  • Larry Cuban is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University and past president of the American Educational Research Association.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Press

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