Why the History of School Reform is Essential for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

James Baldwin, 1965

The quote from essayist, novelist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin captures the essential truth about the importance of the past in our living each day of each year and making sense out of what we encounter. As it (was) and is true now about white-black relations, so it is true of coming to grips with the history of school reform in the midst of grand efforts to envision the high school of the future and “personalized learning” through technology.

There is, of course, nothing wrong about these aspirations for fundamental change in a two-century old institution. What is awry is the staggering amounts of money invested in altering these community institutions harnessed to the conscious indifference to the past when similar efforts by earlier generations of  just as dedicated reformers unfolded. As Baldwin pointed out:  “history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Seems to me that current well-funded efforts to launch and sustain such changes upon U.S. schools should, at the minimum, be informed by similar experiments that occurred in the past.

Were well-intentioned reformers now to tap that wisdom and study the history of similar reforms it would not lead to pessimism, throwing in the towel, or similar acts of giving up. It would, I believe, lead to more informed strategies and outcomes for current reforms. A greater concern for solid incremental changes, implemented fully, that accumulate into moving an institution from here to there. But that is not the case now.

The current crop of school reformers, both on the political right and left, have a full agenda of Common Core standards, test-driven accountability, expanding parental choice through charters, spreading virtual teaching and learning, and ridding classrooms of ineffective teachers based upon students’ test scores. These reformers have their eyes fixed on the future not the horrid present  where schools, in their charitable view, are dinosaurs. These reformers are allergic to the history of school reform; they are ahistorical activists that carry the whiff of arrogance associated with the uninformed.

*They do not know what happened in schools when political coalitions between the 1890s-1940s  believed that there was a mismatch between student skills and industrial needs.  Vocationally-driven schools cranked out graduates who could enter skilled and semi-skilled industrial and white-collar jobs (See Benavot voc ed and Kanter voc ed). That was then. The current vocational drive to get all students into college and equip them with 21st century technological skills that no employer could turn away might give reformers pause in learning of the strengths and limits of that earlier reform-minded generation’s impact on vocational education.

*They do not know what happened in past efforts in various cities throughout mid-to-late 19th century schools in introducing widespread testing, evaluation of teachers based on those scores, and accountability. See here and Testing in 20th century.

*They do not know what happened when previous efforts to introduce innovative technologies into schools stumbled, got adapted in ways unforeseen by reformers, and even disappeared. See history of technology and here.

*They do not know how personalized learning is the most recent incarnation of many determined past efforts to get around the lockstep of age-graded schooling by differentiating teaching and individualizing learning (see here and here).

Uninformed reformers forget James Baldwin’s wisdom as they unknowingly forge ahead with their grand plans to transform public schools.

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Practitioners, researchers, and policymakers look at school reform through a grimy windshield; they have yet to see clearly that ignoring previous reform efforts only means that they unknowingly re-invent changes that have an influential history already deeply embedded within their shiny reforms.

7 Comments

Filed under research, school reform policies, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Why the History of School Reform is Essential for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers

  1. Jeffrey Bowen

    I could not agree more strongly. After more than 20 years of policy research followed by another 20 as a local school district exec, I see our obliviousness about past reforms playing out differently at different levels of governance. At the state level, legislators and state ed departments tend to ignore the lessons fron past administrations, base strategy on political bargaining, and focus on regulatory impetus and accountability. At the local level, there is a sometimes awesome homeostasis based on the rigid notion that you should not change antyhing cause it isn’t broke. At either level, appreciation or knowledge ( let alone wisdom) about past reforms, especially if they date back, is truly negligible.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Some of us are history on the hoof, in addition to being present or former teachers of histories of education. There is little tolerance for historical/cultural/social perspectives in the education of teachers today, least of all in programs that seek to reduce teaching to so-called “high leverage skill sets,” with a ready-to teach-on-day-one claim, based on passing edPTA and or some practice sessions with avatars. Thanks for this post.

  3. Pingback: Why the History of School Reform is Essential f...

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