In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Public Schools, Larry Cuban tackles a set of questions fundamental to the field of education: What does it mean for public schools—and the reforms, policies, and programs they implement—to succeed or fail? Where do these conceptions come from, and how have they been conveyed across generations of Americans? An eminent education historian, Cuban looks into the past for answers to these questions and traces their evolution to the present. Through historical analysis, reflections on his experiences as a practitioner, and in-depth case studies of two California public schools, Cuban reveals the true complexity and dimensionality of the terms success and failure. He challenges his readers to move past the neat dichotomy in which these terms can be presented and to embrace a more nuanced, expansive, and multidimensional approach to understanding and evaluating the quality of our nation’s public schools.

In his introduction, Cuban reflects on his experience with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, an initiative that prepared returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools through a one-year training program. He uses that reflection to highlight the difficulties in declaring any program, reform, or institution an unqualified “success” or “failure” and identifies three key facets that should be evaluated instead: “the process of adopting a policy, the programs that enact the policy, and the politics necessary to put the policy into practice” (p. 8). Importantly, he notes that an initiative can flourish in one of these areas and struggle in another. For example, a policy can be rolled out in a smooth process across multiple schools, but the program that implements the policy might be poorly conceived (or vice versa). Furthermore, any one area may vary in “success” over time. In fact, Cuban argues that determinations of success and failure are often muddled and riddled with contradictions. In light of this complexity, he asks, “What lies between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in a reform or when applied to a particular school and program?” (p. 5). This question, which embraces the gray in the often black-and-white discourse around educational quality and reform, is an important refrain throughout the book.

Each of the next four chapters focuses on a central question related to the way Americans define the success and failure of public schools. Chapter 1 explores how these terms have been defined at various points in US history, from the Progressive Era’s focus on efficiency and a “one best system” of schooling to contemporary framings of “effective” or “high performing” schools. Cuban argues that, despite many waves of reform, “efficiency” and “effectiveness” and their traditional measures, such as test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions, continue to anchor (and limit) Americans’ conceptions of educational quality. In chapter 2 he traces the connection between these measures of schools’ institutional success (test scores, graduation rates, etc.) and notions of individual success, which he argues is measured for Americans in “individual earnings, property purchased, and time spent with family” (p. 41). The institutional success of schools is judged by how well they help students achieve these aims. These definitions of individual and institutional success, he argues, are grounded in the nation’s market-driven economy, which, together with its democratic governance structures, fosters Americans’ core values of “individualism, community, and equal opportunity” (p. 42). To Cuban, these values are foundational to the way Americans define success for themselves and their schools. Chapter 3 explores how three institutions—business, sports, and public schools—convey these national core values and perpetuate the individual and institutional conceptions of success and failure that influence education. Chapter 4 discusses the “policy elites” who evaluate the quality of American public education, the processes they use for doing so, and how, despite good intentions, these approaches continue to limit the country’s ability to effectively understand, measure, and pursue educational quality.

To illuminate his argument, Cuban introduces case studies of two contemporary California public schools, exploring how they are defining and pursuing success in innovative and holistic ways while striving to demonstrate quality through traditional measures prioritized by parents, district leaders, and policy makers. Through descriptions of the school environments, analysis of mission and vision statements and communications materials, and vignettes of classroom lessons, Cuban provides a sense of the values, culture, and practices of each school. He then asks, “Are these schools successful?” To answer this question, he returns to the three dimensions of “success” he identifies in the introduction—the policy adoption process, the programs to enact the policy, and politics of that enactment.

Cuban closes by making the case that understanding current and historical conceptions of success and failure, both individual and institutional, is essential for any reformer who “wants to alter common patterns of schooling, teaching, and learning” (p. 190). He calls for reformers to champion a broader and more multidimensional way to conceive of and evaluate success to inspire and facilitate greater variation in school organization and educational practice. Such variation, he argues, is necessary to meet the needs of a diversifying nation.

This ambitious and engaging book is most compelling when it is arguing for the value and necessity of more complicated and multidimensional conceptions of success and failure in education. The framework of examining process, programs, and politics provides an accessible approach to recognizing the ways policies may excel in one area of implementation and struggle in another. Often, as practitioners frequently attest, reforms are scrapped in their entirety to make room for the next big thing, even when aspects are working. Giving practitioners, policy makers, and researchers the tools to separate strengths from weaknesses and to identify the critical lessons that lie in the gray space between “success” and “failure” will help improve schools’ organizational learning and is a worthwhile aim.

During a season when little about our country feels unified and the fault lines of longstanding division are bracingly clear, reading Cuban’s discussion of American core values and beliefs in chapter 2 was more challenging. While the threads of “individualism, community, and equal opportunity” can be traced throughout the nation’s history, it is difficult to believe that these are the core values of Americans now or in times past, or that these values “have matured and remained constant” for all Americans since the arrival of the first European colonists (p. 42). Certainly, the extreme unevenness with which equal opportunity, for instance, has been applied calls into question how “core” these values truly are. And what of the values that waves of immigrants brought to the communities in which they settled?

In reading this discussion, I found myself wondering why Cuban chose to name a set of American core values, especially given his compelling advocacy for valuing nuance and the gray between absolutes. These claims of constancy and universality are not essential to his argument; the values he identifies need only be influential, especially among those holding power, such as the policy elites he discusses in chapter 4. Indeed, in the later chapters, Cuban speaks to the increasing diversity of American values and perspectives. In fact, highlighting the diversity of needs, values, and perspectives among parents, students, and educators further supports his argument for careful consideration of how educational institutions and initiatives succeed and for whom and under what circumstances.

This book is valuable for the critical questions it poses about how we understand and evaluate the success and failure of our public schools. Cuban makes the convincing argument that the way we define and measure these terms is too narrow and dichotomous, hindering our ability to separate out the layers of what has and has not worked. Embracing the gray between educational success and failure and reaching beyond traditional quality measures like test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions could encourage more innovative and holistic ideas for reform, shifting the “common patterns of schooling, teaching, and learning” for the better. Cuban’s work invites us to step back and consider the assumptions we bring to defining success for ourselves and the educational institutions that shape each new generation of Americans. The questions he poses, and the tools he offers to help us reach more nuanced answers, will continue to be important as we imagine public education for an increasingly diverse nation and a new century.