A Reform That Missed Its Target Once and Then Hit The Bullseye Later: How Come?

It happens all the time. A reform comes along that is popular and it is adopted.  But somehow the reform doesn’t stick. It shuffles off not to be seen again until decades later, the same reform reappears and, lo and behold, it is everywhere.

For older readers, offering four year-olds the chance to get quality child care–then called preschools– a half-century ago was the reform du jour. That was when federally-funded Head Start began in 1965 but enrolled only a tiny fraction of eligible low-income children. Progressive reformers wanted all children to receive similar services. There was sufficient bipartisan momentum then to get the U.S. Congress to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act that would have provided programs for preschoolers. President Richard Nixon, however, vetoed the bill in 1971 saying that the Act would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Gone but not forgotten.

Nearly two generations later the U.S. President, Congress, state governors and legislatures, the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce stump for all-day or universal preschool (or both) as part of K-12 systems. Illinois, Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma have Universal Prekindergarten. The rationale that investing in early childhood education now will pay big social dividends later has become a “truth” accepted by most Americans. And in 2013, 28 percent of all four year olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs across the country. That percentage will go up. It is popular in a demographically changed society where both parents and single mothers work in full- and part-time jobs.

A similar pattern of widespread adoption of a reform in one decade, its slow-motion disappearance and its resurrection in a later generation has occurred with accountability.

Craig Peck* has recaptured nicely the turnaround story of accountability appearing in New York City in the 1970s, exiting the school district shortly thereafter, and then three decades later, under mayoral control, a reflowering of a full-scale program that assigned A-F grades for individual school performance.

How come?

The answer is the same as it was for preschools in the 1960s: the political, economic, and social context for school reform then and now had changed.

Consider New York City (NYC) schools in the late-1960s and then in 2002.

In 1969, the politically appointed NYC Board of Education created a school accountability committee that included a wide range of community activists, educators, and parents. Decentralization of authority to smaller sub-districts and community control of schools urged by minority communities was in the news monthly. Figuring out how to hold these community districts accountable was near the top of the Board of Education’s agenda.

Based on the committee’s recommendations, the Board of Education signed a contract with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to produce a plan that could be implemented in the system. In 1972, ETS  delivered its accountability plan.  After several years of off-and-on work toward putting the plan into practice, little progress occurred as reports of insufficient funds surfaced. Changeover in superintendents beginning in 1970, now called chancellors, brought in leaders whose to-do lists had accountability low on their agenda. In 1978, Frank Macchiarola dropped the ETS plan completely.

Fast-forward to 2002. The state legislature gave newly elected New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg full  control of the school system taking away the authority of the Board of Education to set policy and hire chancellors. The Mayor replaced the Board of Education with the Panel for Educational Policy, a body to which the mayor had appointed the majority of members. Upon appointing Joel Klein as the school system chancellor in July 2002, Bloomberg was clear with his Chancellor that he wanted a school district where the Chancellor, district officials, principals, teachers and students were held accountable.

Within five years of the Mayor’s pronouncement, officials had designed and put into practice an accountability system where each public school received a published A-F letter grade based predominantly on student test score growth. Clear to the hundreds of principals was the fact that the school’s grade would also be used to evaluate them  annually.

Craig Peck points out how the political, economic, and social context had changed  between the early 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century. He underscores how the  standards-based curriculum, testing, and accountability became the commonly accepted theory of action driving school reform. That reform-driven framework plus four factors explain how accountability did not stick in the 1970s but now dominates current thinking and practice in New York City schools.

*Money–private and public resources were slim in the 1970s but became far more available under mayoral control;

*Power–bottom-up community activists and parents in the earlier decade were replaced by a strong top-down coalition of mayor, chancellor, and business leaders;

*Media attention–press and public relations were present in 1970s but has now become an essential managerial tool to advance reform;

*Principals–school-site leaders were one of a number of key actors in the 1970s when no one person was held responsible for system performance. After subsequently giving up tenure in the position for increased pay, principals became solely responsible for students’ academic performance decades later.

Peck’s explanation of how accountability as a strategy for turning low-performing schools into high-performing ones appeared and exited in the 1970s and then reappeared three decades later to dominate school reform in one city–is persuasive. Context and timing matter when it comes to school reform.


*Craig Peck is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Peck was a Stanford University graduate student who I collaborated with in completing a project investigating high school use of desktop  computers in 1998.





Filed under school reform policies

10 responses to “A Reform That Missed Its Target Once and Then Hit The Bullseye Later: How Come?

  1. Interesting. Of course, the flavor of the day is, however, only big on accountability in the public sector, not the privatized sectors. This is true not only in educational “reforms”. Family therapists often ask “who benefits” when observing an apparently dysfunctional mess. As I look over the past half century, I ask that too.

  2. And why should this not be true? All attempts to reform “broken” schools over generations have failed. The Cargo Cult Science of education research doesn’t produce any truths, or if there is any truth to the results, implementation is not substantive — merely becoming buzzword compliant at all levels of the education system from publishers to the individual teacher. Of course, politics has to be part of this since unless there is money allocated, little gets done. Further, it takes decades to see that the changes didn’t work since reforms most often start at the lower grades and a decade at least has to pass before the real effects are known.

    Should I even note the obvious? Mark Twain once said: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it”.

  3. Larry Paros

    Here’s an article I wrote for the Huffington Post that’s a variation on that same theme: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-paros/reflections-of-an-octogen_b_6374764.html



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