Historians of education interpret the past. The key word is “interpret” since few historians believe that facts ever speak for themselves. Using frameworks they have built brick-by-brick from their experiences and scholarly work, historians sift facts and create a credible story to answer questions. They have a Big Picture in their heads, one that may change as facts, ideas, and personal experiences accumulate and interact. What is the Big Picture for school reform that I, as a teacher and scholar, have built over the years?
The short version is that political, socioeconomic, and organizational contexts of schooling influence, but not determine, reform-driven policies and classroom practice. Local conditions (e.g., neighborhood, principal) add further wrinkles. Teachers, however, either individually or collectively, within these constraints, wield significant weight in leveraging what and how students learn. That’s the short answer. Next comes the long answer.
The “bricks” that I have assembled into a framework for interpreting U.S. reform-driven policy and practice grows from my work as a teacher and researcher. From both I have come to see classrooms, schools and districts as political, socioeconomic, and organizational entities shaping how teachers teach and what students learn. This framework helps me explain the contradictions and chronic dilemmas that inexorably arise from cycles of school reform. Here are the “bricks,” one-by-one, that I have built into a Big Picture. Consider, tear apart, and, if so moved, reassemble them.
1. In a market-based, politically-driven democracy, policy elites and interest groups identify problems (e.g., poverty, municipal corruption, slow economic growth) that need to be solved. Solutions for these problems (e.g., federal, state, and local laws against corruption, creating jobs, and new fiscal policies), are called “reforms.”
2. Sometimes the severity of these problems lead to social movements to correct the ills. In the 1890s, for example, political corruption, big city slums, and immigration provoked the Progressive movement and a slew of governmental and social welfare reforms. In the 1950s and 1960s, activist college students and religious leaders protested segregated schools, parks, housing, and restaurants, leading a Civil Rights movement that brought an end to Jim Crow laws and practices. And since the 1970s, fears of losing economic ground to global competitors has produced a movement to increase U.S. market strength.
3. In these social movements to solve national problems, reformers looked to schools for solutions. In short, big problems became “educationalized.” For example,while early 20th century progressives sought to end municipal corruption,one wing of these reformers expanded the school’s role to include feeding children, building playgrounds for students to exercise, providing doctors to keep children healthy, and creating lessons to Americanize immigrants. For the economy-driven movement since the late-1970s, leaning heavily upon the human capital argument, embraced reforms seeking higher standards, more testing, rigorous accountability, and new technologies to produce academically achieving graduates who would spur economic growth.
4. School reformers, translating larger political, social, and economic problems into solutions, have sought (and still seek) to alter one or more of the basic structures of U.S. schooling established within the past two centuries. By structures, I mean: decentralized governance and funding of schools (i.e., 15,000 districts and 100,000 schools receiving state and federal dollars), multiple goals (i.e., literacy, socialization, work preparation, moral character, reducing social inequities), age-graded K-12 schools, and compulsory attendance in largely segregated schools.
These political, socioeconomic, and organizational structures provide the external context that influence (but not determine) teaching and learning. Equipped with varying amounts of content knowledge, skills, and experience, teachers enter classrooms housed in age-graded schools, each managed by a principal, and located in urban/suburban/rural districts differentiated by income and social status–all of which inhabit a decentralized system with unequal funding for schools.
These teachers face classrooms filled with two dozen or more students compelled to be there who have a vast array of interests, home experiences, and talents in schools and districts differentiated by income and class, race and ethnicity, historical conditions, and principals. These factors enhance or constrain teaching and learning.
Policymakers and parents expect these teachers’ students to meet curriculum standards and do well on standardized tests. They expect teachers to prepare those students for higher education, strengthen their moral character, cultivate independent thinking while also laying the groundwork for future civic participation. Furthermore, parents expect schooling to give their children an edge in climbing life’s ladder. These social beliefs and external contexts add up to an institution riddled with competing demands from stakeholders to offer equal opportunity but insure that some children do better than others in the race for credentials.
So how principals manage, how teachers teach and what students learn is already influenced by these expectations and contexts well before either enters a school. And yet, individual principals and teachers (even groups of teachers), pursuing ideas and practices in diverse ways carve out sufficient autonomy to stretch these contextual constraints sufficiently to make a difference in children and youths’ lives.
Here, then, is the Big Picture that I have built and use in examining school reforms, past and present, to make sense of new policies and what occurs in schools and classrooms. Given this perspective on schools as institutions, what kinds of reforms alter policies and classroom practices?