Have Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in U.S. Public Schools Changed?

The answer is yes.

I begin with a history of how policy elites politically defined “success” in school reform between the late 19th century and mid-20th century. In those years, classrooms, schools, and districts that practiced “efficiency” in expanding access of students to public schooling, following scientifically designed procedures in creating appropriate curriculum for each level in age-graded schools, and using public funds parsimoniously and wisely were “successes” (see here and here)

Using scientific findings, ”educational engineers” (historians call them “administrative Progressives) in the early 20th century sought the best ways for students to learn, teachers to teach, administrators to manage, and school boards to govern. Policymakers asked: how much does it cost to teach Latin? Can teachers get fifth grade students to learn more by lesson worksheets done in class or homework? How can money be saved in heating the building during the winter? How can school boards divest party politics from making educational decisions? Researchers of the day answered such questions (see here and here)

These policymakers also wanted “social efficiency,” that is, graduates of age-graded schools were to be prepared to enter the workplace and act as responsible adults—public schools were to serve both the economy and society.

Challenges to this political consensus occurred at the time from those academics and practitioners who saw the goals of schooling in “learning through doing” and developing the “whole child.” Reformers of this stripe (historians called them “pedagogical Progressives) sought to create classrooms and schools that gave students more choices, positioned teachers as guides rather than directors, created curricula that crossed disciplinary boundaries, and integrated family, community, and the larger world into classroom experiences. To these reformers, “success” and “failure” went far beyond “efficient” classrooms and schools. The definition of “successful” schooling that they constructed sought student well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. But their challenges to the dominant view lost in these years although their definitions, beliefs and practices have persisted in subsequent decades.

By the late-1960s, however, the half-century prevailing consensus over “efficiency” as the dominant way to determine “success” and “failure” had fallen apart.

In that decade, expanded federal legislation to improve public schooling for poor children and youth led to direct infusion of funds into states and districts to improve schools serving poor children and youth. Another generation of policy elites pursued made a 180-degree switch in defining “success” from one of “efficiency” to one of “effectiveness.” These reformers wanted student outcomes (e.g., raising student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and lowering number of dropouts) to define “success.” From inputs to outputs, as economists would say, sum up the flip-flop history of defining “success” and “failure” in the 20th century.

Increased emphasis on students’ academic outcomes and public rankings of schools and districts spread through the 1970s until today when new technologies permit policymakers to use large caches of information to reach swift judgments of “success” and “failure.” Now parents with laptops and smart phones can directly access their children’s academic performance on a weekly basis and school’s performance on state tests.

The tsunami of public data on student outcomes and habitual policy debates over “failing” U.S. schools introduces the bell-shaped curve of distribution of “winners” and “losers” in the American lexicon of reforming schools. The bell-shaped curve illustrates how most students and teachers in age-graded schools and districts are in the middle not at either tail—“success” or “failure”– of a distribution.

In the U.S., a highly competitive, individualistic culture wins and losses are counted religiously with check-marks placed either in the “win” or “loss” columns. For example, in business transactions (e.g., rise and fall in stock prices, creating unicorn companies worth billions and start-ups that disappear, restaurants opening their doors and later shutting down) define “success” and “failure.” Similarly, in college and professional sports (e.g., which pitcher has best earned run average, and National Football League team standings)

But reality of everyday life is a tad more complex; not everything is a win or loss–there is an in-between: the middle range, the typical, the average.

The concept of being in the middle—“average”–has in the U.S. segued into “mediocrity,” a linguistic euphemism for inferior quality applied to student, teacher, and school performance. “Average” and “mediocre” have become common adjectives added to current political vocabulary in describing classrooms, schools, and districts neither “successful” nor “failed.”

Yes, changes have occurred in defining what “success’ and “failure” mean in past and present reformers’ vocabulary. Moreover, the concept of “mediocre” also has been added recently where none existed in the 20th century to describe “average.” Those changes mean that such concepts bend with time and are context-bound; they are not absolute.



Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “Have Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in U.S. Public Schools Changed?

  1. Sarah

    I’ve been thinking just within the past week or so that NCLB had the effect of redefining the purpose of education from teaching and learning to test taking.
    With this post, the transition is more clear–from a focus on inputs to one of outputs. And I thank you for providing this history.
    Why do you think reform goes back and forth like that rather than settling into its own sort of bell curve where the ins and outs are both taken into consideration?

    • larrycuban

      What would be your best guess as to why reform “goes back and forth … rather than settling into its own sort of bell curve?” I am curious how you might explain that puzzle.

      • Steve Davis

        This may be oversimplifying the issue or stating the obvious, but here’s my take on why reform doesn’t settle into a bell curve. The pendulum swings of education veer back-and-fourth between pedagogical progressivism and social efficiency like a fishtailing car because course corrections don’t results in immediate, noticeable results, so policy makers overcorrect in one direction. When the desired results don’t magically and instantly appear, an over correction in the other direction is prompted, and so it goes ad infinitum. The matter is further complicated by all of the different stakeholders grabbing at the wheel of the (seemingly) out of control car.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Steve. Nice to hear from you again.

  2. E por isso é importante aparecer no topo!

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