School reform over the past century has skipped from one big policy fix to another without a backward look at what happened the first time around. Or even whether the reforms succeeded. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another (see here, here, and here). Reform-minded policymakers have offered rhetoric-wrapped cures time and again without a glance backward. If amnesia were like aphrodisiac pills, policymakers have been popping capsules for years. Memory loss about past school reforms permits policymakers to forge ahead with a new brace of reforms and feel good. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another. What have school reformers targeted?
Current and decades-old Big Policy “solutions” for problems in U.S. schools have sought one or more of the following:
*Fix the students (e.g., early childhood education, family education, teach middle class behaviors and attitudes to students from low-income families)
*Fix the schools (e.g., more parental choice in schools, longer school day and year, reduced class size, higher curriculum standards, more and better tests, accountability for results, different age-grade configurations; give autonomy to schools)
*Fix the teachers (e.g., enlarge the pool of recruits for teaching, better university teacher education, switch from teacher-centered to student-centered ways of teaching, more and better classroom technologies)
Public and policymaker affections have hopscotched from one solution to another then and now and in some instances, combined different fixes (e.g., extending school day, raising standards and increasing accountability for schools and teachers, promoting universal pre-school, pushing problem-based learning).
The evidence to support such skipping to and from has been skimpy, at best. But one should not criticize policymakers for having insufficient evidence prior to imposing new reforms. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions and voters, taxpayers, and parents are willing (or unwilling) participants in supporting ideologically based school reforms such as lifting state caps on number of charter schools and expanding testing. Regardless of evidence.
Asking policymakers and practitioners to use evidence-based innovations when a wide range of stakeholders in public schools have to be informed and consulted is, well, asking far too much. Ideologies and political power matter far more than research-derived evidence. Very little evidence, for example, accompanied the New Deal economic and social reforms to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s. Nor did much evidence accompany the launching of Medicare or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s. And very little evidence drove federal oversight of U.S. public schools in No Child Left Behind (2002). Reform-driven policies are (and have been) hardly research-based.
Rather than the constant call for evidence-based policy and practice, perhaps a more realistic standard that federal, state, and local policymakers might use is making policy that is informed by evidence. Such a standard at least acknowledges the political and ideological environment in which pubic schools operate in the U.S.
Yet were such a standard to be used, forgetfulness of past reforms and frequent leaping from one kind of fix to another would still continue. Why is that?
For the past two centuries, political and economic leaders have turned to public schools to solve national social, political, and economic problems. This “educationalizing” of U.S. problems has included racial segregation (e.g., the Brown decision in 1954), national defense (National Defense Education Act in 1958), and inequality issues (e.g., War on Poverty in the 1960s). So the frequent turning of civic, business, and foundation leaders to public schools to fix national political, economic, and social issues has become a nervous tic afflicting national and state policymakers. It explains the jumping from one policy solution to another that veteran school-watchers have noted often.
But political ideologies do shift over time. Just as the dominant Progressive movement between the 1890s and 1940s pervaded the language, curriculum guides, and actions of early-to-mid-20th century policymakers, practitioners, and parents, in the decades following World War II, Progressive ideas and practices declined (except for a brief resurgence in the 1960s) as politically conservative ideologies aimed at fixing the nation’s ills came to dominate reform agendas. And since the mid-1980s, increasing U.S. economic competitiveness in global markets has been the driving force behind U.S. school reform. International tests have been used time and again to compare U.S. students to their European and Asian peers. Fixing school structure from curriculum standards to time in school to expanded parental choice have been on reformers’ agendas for decades now.
Yet even the current conservative ideology of public schools helping to grow a strong economy may be shifting as parents, Republican legislators and teachers push back against too many standardized tests and coercive accountability. Concerns over federal over-reach in local schools have been central to the contested renewal of No Child Left Behind.
Returning more power to states and local districts to solve problems is clearly in the air (yes, another structural fix for school problems). Progressive lyrics and melodies of decades past are on the playlists of school reformers. Charter schools, universal preschool, better teacher education, personalized instruction, blended learning, problem-based instruction—often driven by technology-enthusiasts—have the makings of a new Progressive agenda.
This generation of reformers, however, has yet to take a hard look at earlier school reforms that sought to “solve” problems by fixing children, schools, and teachers. My advice to reformers is to nail up on a wall the quote of Andre Gide, Nobel Laureate in literature (1947):