The Puzzle of School Reform Cycles

Anyone over the age of 40 who is familiar with public schools knows that similar reforms come again and again as if policy makers suffered amnesia. Consider, for example, the fundamental (and familiar) question that has launched periods of reform like changing seasons: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

The policy question was asked initially in the 1890s–a politically conservative era–and answered yes (see here and here). Then two decades later after World War I, policymakers working in a liberal political climate, asked the question and answered no. Students should be able to choose whether they want to go to college, work in white- and blue-collar jobs (see here and here). Then in the late 1950s in the middle of the Cold War–a politically conservative era, the policy question arose again and the answer was yes; all students should study rigorous subject matter in math, sciences, and social studies (see here and here). Between the 1960s and the 1970s, policymakers asked the question again, and answered it yes at one time and no at another (see here and here).

And since the early 1980s ( a Nation at Risk report being a marker of that politically conservative era) the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability movement now including the Common Core standards, all students are expected to learn the same content and skills.

In each instance since the 1890s, then, as times shifted between conservative and liberal eras, school curricula cycled back and forth between all students studying the same content and skills and students (and their parents) being able to choose what content and skills they want to focus on.

Similar reform cycles on how best to teach (teacher-centered or student-centered) have marked policy debates then and now (see here). Ditto for how best to organize districts and schools–centralized authority in district offices or delegate authority to school sites (see here). Again and again these cycles of reform have occurred. How come?

Before turning to an answer to this question, keep in mind that cycles are part of our lives. There are animal and plant life cycle of birth through death. There are seasonal cycles of weather. And there are non-biological and non-climate cycles as well. Economists have documented business cycles of boom and bust. Political scientists have pointed to electoral cycles of liberalism and conservatism. Historians and health care scientists have focused on cycles in medicine and medical education alternating in the past century between care for the patient and producing research-based physicians. So public schools are surely in step with other institutions insofar as having periodic cycles of reform.

The beginnings of any answer to the question of “how come”? is found outside of public schools. Like all cliches there is a grain of truth at the core of the trite saying that when the U.S. has a cold, public schools sneeze. Historically, economic, political, demographic, and cultural changes in the larger society reverberate across tax-supported public schools because they are at their core political institutions that respond to both conservative and liberal movements. Each of the above reform cycles in curriculum, pedagogical, and organization occurred at moments when conservative or liberal ideology gained more adherents and elected officials congenial to those ideas.

The most obvious example in the lives of current U.S. educators has been the linking of the economy to school reform beginning in the late-1970s and lasting until the present day–although changes are in the air (see below). Two economic recessions (1973-1975 and 1980-1982) when high unemployment (9% and 10% respectively) led to the Republican twelve year hold on the Presidency (Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988, George H.W. Bush, 1988-1992). The issuing of A Nation at Risk  (1983) laid out an agenda of school reform around high curriculum standards, tougher graduation requirements, testing, and accountability that tightly coupled schools to a stronger economy. For three decades, then, this politically conservative (both Republicans and Democrats) ideology of harnessing public schools to build a strong economy has brought the U.S. education to a Common Core Curriculum and preparing students to be “college and career” ready. This generation of school reformers has answered yes to the question: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

My answer to the question of cycles of school reform, then looks to the periodic shifts in political ideologies among policymakers and the populace, often prompted by social, economic, and cultural changes.

But there may be a shift in the offing. America may be moving to the left side of the political spectrum after decades on the center-right. Growing parental and educator protests against testing and Common Core standards point to a slowly evolving popular movement against federal intervention into local schools. Moreover, policymakers signaled shifts in the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind (2002) into Every Student Succeeds Act (2015). The law devolves responsibility for low-performing schools back to the states.  Far more acceptance of social-emotional learning, project based teaching, concern for the “whole child” may be further markers of a turn to the liberal bend of the historic political cycle.

If the nation has a cold, public schools sniffle.



Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “The Puzzle of School Reform Cycles

  1. Jeffrey Bowen

    It seems as though certain triggers start the cycles moving back on the pendulum, or at least in a different direction, especially in a political context. The latest may be the relatively volatile parent and public reaction to standardized overtesting. Something galvanizes change. Certain influential leadership roles can have a telling effect as you suggest. The roles work in varied combinations. And as you just guessed, a constructive route for insight is Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT.

  2. Joel VerDuin

    It is entirely possible that “Obamacare” did more to damage the Common Core movement than almost anything else. Transfer is an amazing phenomenon to watch in action.

  3. Your book Tinkering to Utopia started me on the path of researching ed reform cycle dynamics. Over the years I’ve come, more and more, to appreciate the fundamental tension between education’s role as a large-group levelling tool and a smaller-group niche optimization tool. One side leans to social justice-type concerns, the other side leans to the hard-to-ignore short term benefits of streamlining. Each orientation functions as an adaptive group: providing real benefits for the altruistic sacrifices required to sustain it. Because neither orientation dominates, complex cycling occurs.

    Whether or not this is the case, the journey has been loads of fun and tremendously illuminating. Onto quantitative pop. genetics to test things out….

    Thanks for all your inspiration and pragmatically grounded wisdom!

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