Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 1)

My next book has the working title: “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in Schools.” I describe and analyze the ways educators have defined “success” and “failure,” where these concepts originated, and the consequences flowing from their use in classrooms, schools, and districts.

The first question in the book is: Have definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools changed over time?

The answer is yes. Here is how I arrived at that answer.

The history of how educational policy elites politically defined “success” in school reform between the late 19th century and mid-20th century reveals such a change. 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 used the most recent research of the day determined the best ways for students to learn, teachers to teach, administrators to manage, and school boards to govern.”Scientific management” and “educational efficiency” were the slogans educators used then to tout “success’ and “failure.”

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 rapidly expanding industrial workplace and act as responsible adults—public schools were to serve both the economy and society.

Overall, then, that generation of reformers assumed that efficient schools and districts were also effective in doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., make literate citizens who can enter an industrialized workplace. Efficiency and effectiveness were one and the same to these 20th century reformers but the concept of efficiency dominated both theory and practice.

Challenges to this educational consensus on efficiency occurred at the time from those academics and practitioners who saw the goals of schooling–producing literate citizens who could enter a changing workplace–best achieved through “learning by 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 drill sergeants, 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 students’ well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. But their challenges to the dominant view lost in these years although their definitions of “successful” schooling, beliefs and practices have persisted into subsequent decades.

Fast forward to the late-1960s. In that decade, the half-century prevailing consensus over “efficiency” as the dominant way to determine “success” and “failure” broke apart.

In those years, expanded federal legislation to improve public schooling for poor children and youth–The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 (ESEA)–led to direct infusion of funds into states and districts to improve schools serving poor children. This generation of policy elites slowly made a 180-degree switch in defining “success” from one of research-driven “efficiency” to one of  judging how well students performed. These reformers, unlike there older reform cousins, wanted student outcomes (e.g., raising student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and lowering number of dropouts) to define “success.” Sure, efficiency, that is, reducing waste and increasing teacher and student productivity, remained important but emphasis had now shifted to student outcomes as measures of “success” and “failure.” Effective schools–as they were called–were now in the foreground; efficient schools slipped into the background.

From ESEA (1965) to No Child Left Behind (2002) and now the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), federal, state, and district policymakers defined “success” and “failure”  using test scores. Economists would say that educational policy over the past century has shifted from inputs–how much and how well money is spent per student–to outputs–student test scores thereby summing up the flip-flop history of defining school “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 daily basis and their school’s performance on state tests.

Determining the effectiveness of classrooms, schools, and districts by measuring student outcomes in test scores, graduation rates, student dropouts, and college admissions reigns supreme. Of course, efficiency remains highly important since education dollars are scarce and cutting waste in spending money remains on the to-do list. Not until the rise of “big data,” “data-based decision-making,” and the arrival of algorithms has both effectiveness and efficiency become equal partners again, a development that would have made Edward Thorndike smile and John Dewey grimace.

The shift from primary emphasis on “scientific management” to advance efficiency in schools and classrooms–what later critics called “the cult of efficiency“– to a focus on effectiveness, i.e., student outcomes, in the late-20th century to determine  “success” and “failure” is prologue to what is now occurring in 21st century U.S. schools.  Part 2 looks at the current generation of entrepreneurs and technology advocates resurrecting another “cult of efficiency”  that is reshaping anew current notions of “success” and “failure.”




Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

9 responses to “Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 1)

  1. Laura H. Chapman
    This is one of several recent reports on the per student cost of teaching various subjects in high school. Latin is not listed, but foreign languages are said to cost more than any other subject. The calculations are crude, but this is an ideological exercise. It is an argument on behalf of outsourcing expensive subjects or charging parents extra for anything above and beyond a “basic program.” Several papers make this case for school financing, a modified version of user pays the cost, with unbundling of courses and services. I look forward to your next installment on “success.”

  2. I see that the date of the above mentioned article is 2009 – following the our bleak Great Recession. I find it a pretty far-fetched analysis of how schools allocate resources. Here in VA, I’ve not seen this model employed – nor evidence where it was elsewhere.

    What would be more enlightening would be a study of the red states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, West VA which enacted tax laws requiring a super majority for increases in taxes as they eroded their school financing and stagnated their teacher salaries while increasing their health costs. Oklahoma’s answer to less funding in some places was to hold classes only 4 days a week! which further eroded teacher salaries.

  3. Excellent article! Another great read on the “cult of efficiency” is Ray Callahan’s classic 1960s “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”. I’d be surprised if you haven’t read it but I’m sure there are many readers here who have never heard of it. I highly recommend it to understand how the business sector inserted itself into the public education realm from the late 1800s into the 50s.

  4. “. . .public schools were to serve both the economy and society.
    Overall, then, that generation of reformers assumed that efficient schools and districts were also effective in doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., make literate citizens who can enter an industrialized workplace. . . . who saw the goals of schooling–producing literate citizens who could enter a changing workplace. . . . The definition of “successful” schooling that they constructed sought students’ well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth.”

    The ever-changing rationales, purpose(s) of public education. . . which one(s) (along with many others) do we choose? What is the basis for choosing X rationale/purpose? The business sector would love for us to believe the purpose is to prepare students for life “after school”, as if schooling is an aberration in one’s life to begin with, you know the old “real world” vs the schooling world.

    The progressive definition-“student’s well being. . . ” most closely fits what the purpose of public schooling should be. How can we discern the purpose of public education? Where can the rationale be found?

    Through and in the states’ constitutions. Twenty five of the state constitutions give no rationale, just that the state is obligated to provide education for its children. Twenty five do give a stated purpose and of those stated purposes twenty of them cite the benefit to the individual. That being so, combining those reasons in a succinct summary the purpose of public education can be stated as:

    “The purpose of public education is to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.”

    (From Ch. 1-The Purpose of Public Education in my book “Infidelity to Truth: Education Malpractice in American Public Education”.)

  5. Educating Human Potential

    Education and raising children is often paradoxical. Expecting things of them now that does not have immediate outcome is often what provides the long-term benefits. Where we think we need to put resources is often the opposite, but it is never linear so it also seems in opposition to efficiency. For example, when every child is not provided a certain piece of equipment or material, they have to wait their turn, collaborate, or problem solve to get work done. All of these activities have longterm benefits, but appear meaningless and inefficient in the moment. Education needs to work from the perspective of the long-term, not tomorrow or next year, even if that is tougher to measure. Our future depends on it!

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