In previous posts about the label “failure” attached to school reform, I laid out an argument that making such a judgment is tricky. Who makes the judgment and what clock they listen to matters in judging “failure” or “success.” In this post I look at a K-8 school reform from a century ago and ask you whether it was a “failure.”
In 1906 in a town built by U.S. Steel on the shores of Lake Michigan, a new superintendent introduced an educational innovation that hundreds of school districts adopted in the next decade. Visitors traveled thousands of miles to meet Superintendent William Wirt, sit in classrooms of cheerfully decorated schools, and marvel at how children of immigrants learned during the day while their non-English speaking parents attended classes at night. Even though U.S. Steel owned the property and employees largely ran the town, the educational experiment converged with company interests in providing what observers called a productive education for both white-collar and blue-collar employees.
Progressives of the day, imbued with the revolutionary ideas of John Dewey and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, wrote articles and books praising the combination of work and play, of school and community, of efficiency and civic-mindedness, that put the name of Gary, Indiana on the early twentieth century map of school reform.
The Platoon School (or Gary Plan) was introduced in a remodeled elementary school holding children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Administrators divided the student body into two groups or “platoons.” One platoon would be in the classrooms or auditorium while the other would be in the basement where there were woodworking, printing, and other shops; upstairs in music, art, and play rooms; or outside on the playground. During the day, each platoon would change places, giving each child academic, practical, recreational, and aesthetic experiences while using the entire facility. Most urban elementary school children in 1906 stayed the entire 6-8 hour school day in a self-contained classroom with one teacher; Gary pupils worked with many teachers during an eight-hour day, even receiving released time for religious instruction.
Moreover, because Superintendent William Wirt believed in tying the city of Gary to schools, adults (many of whom were recent immigrants working in the steel mills) would attend evening classes to learn English, hear lectures, and use various shops to learn industrial skills. Such a work-study-play-community school arrangement—a revolutionary shift in school organization and curriculum—made it possible to have many more students attend school since the schedule permitted all available space to be used by students during the day and adults at night. The Gary innovation spread swiftly across the nation. Educational pundits of the day applauded its success.
In 1918, however, two educational experts completed a study of the Gary schools. It praised some aspects of the platoon plan but raised serious questions about the quality of academic work and weak student performance on achievement tests. Soon after, national interest in the Gary Plan ebbed considerably. By the mid-1920s, the innovation had receded and virtually disappeared from the national scene. In Gary, it lasted in some form or another into the 1940s (see here and here)
Today Platoon Schools are largely forgotten. Yet the ideas of using buildings fully, offering a diversified curriculum combining academic subjects, practical tasks, and play in which students move to various parts of the school building, and having the school as an educational, social, and recreational center for adults have become mainstream features of elementary schooling. The Platoon School foreshadowed the modern elementary school.
Was the Platoon School a success, then, because it became popular in the media and spread swiftly to hundreds of school districts? Or was it successful because it lasted for over four decades in Gary and evolved into the modern elementary school? Or was the reform a failure? After all, the Gary Plan soared in popularity, matured, and then vanished from the national scene. Few present-day school reformers would recognize the name or remember the program. The Gary story suggests the puzzling ambiguity of, if not confusion in, determining the “success” and “failure” of school reforms.
I argue that most highly touted school reforms today (e.g., charters, pay-4-performance, KIPP schools) are like the Platoon School. They are adopted and, as they are implemented, undergo changes that transform them in ways that few of the designers of the original reform could predict, or even claim ownership.
Because schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools, judging an innovation’s success or failure is no easy task. Such doubts, however, have hardly prevented policy elites (then and now) from rushing to judgment in employing their standards of judging success. Media amplify elite opinions, often framing the reforms as winners and losers. As a result, some promising reforms that evolve too slowly for impatient policymakers and media pundits are aborted while others that are earmarked as winners by opinion-setters in the horserace for public attention often fade and disappear. I argued that the judgment of “failure” is anchored in the time-scale each group uses–their “clocks” (see here and here)
The crucial piece to evaluating school reforms is asking : What standards are used to make judgments? Whose standards are they? In subsequent posts I answer these questions.