The following post is an encore published nearly seven years ago. I have updated and added sections to it.
A few years ago, Diane Ravitch told (The Death and Life of the Great American School System) of her recent switch from championing school reforms (testing, accountability, and choice) as a federal policymaker, educational historian, and pundit to rejecting these policies. Ravitch’s turnaround got me thinking about what I had believed earlier in my career and believe now sixty years later.
I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”
And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. between the early 1960s and mid-1970s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve, I do not. That passionate idealism about teaching and the role that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to those long days working as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night.
That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 to teach Peace Corps returnees how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities.
I worked in programs that trained young teachers to teach in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.
I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during those years. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the mid-1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms others and I had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.
After leaving D.C., my subsequent work as a superintendent, high school teacher, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. Most important, I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.
Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.
Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.
Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier—with regular and social media hyping the change as a new day for neglected Americans—such turnarounds do occur but they are both uncommon and transient.
Such a three-tier system in the U.S., I concluded, maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.
The irony, of course, is that current policymakers from President Obama [this post appeared in 2012] through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. Knowledge gained from decades of experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform.
Yet, I must also say that those very same experiences have tempered but not dissolved my early idealism. I still believe that content-smart and classroom-wise teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in individual students’ lives even if collectively they cannot cure societal ills.
When this post was published almost seven years ago, a reader commented:
I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I have one question: how can the “content-smart and classroom-wise” teacher make a significant difference when his/her hands are tied by a mandated test-prep curriculum that allows for little or no innovation and that squelches teacher-student spontaneity?
Thanks for the important question that you ask. Although what I say may not resonate with you, the experienced and committed teacher you describe does have ways of dealing with “mandated test-prep curriculum.” Those ways, however, put the burden squarely on the shoulders of those “classroom wise teachers.” One is to raise those issues with other like-minded teachers in the building or outside of the school and mobilize others to find ways of combining test prep with content and skills that students need; another is to use the test-prep for small portions of the week rather than every day; another is to find another place to teach where what you have to offer students goes well beyond test prep.
My reply was focused on the classroom and school. Not on the larger political arena where policies are formed, put on reformer agendas, and enacted in the nation’s schools.
Seven years after this post was published, there have been larger political changes. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and its coercive accountability rules have been replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) shifting authority for standards, tests, and accountability to states. Yet that shift has hardly dissolved the nearly four decade policy consensus that the prime purpose of public schools is to prepare children and youth for the workplace. The Trump administration’s support for charters and vouchers has far less clout with states now that ESSA is the law of the land and may well have drummed up more opposition to charters and other alternative forms of schooling.
While there is far more political stirring among teachers, parents, and segments of the educational policy elite to have less standardized testing and use multiple measures to judge districts, schools, and teachers, the mind-set of A Nation at Risk (1983) continues to dominate thinking about school reform. Sure, there has been pushback against goofy schemes such as evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores or the hyped claims that the Holy Grail of reform is every child having a computer and “personalized learning.”
As in the past century, school reformers today are split over the best ways of improving the nation’s schools but the prevailing purpose of tax-supported public schools still remains preparation of the next generation for the workplace. For that to shift to other historic purposes of schools (e.g., preparing active and engaged citizens, shaping humane, well-rounded adults) a range of actions by a political coalition of educators, civic and business leaders, researchers is essential. For schools follow society; political action from without influences what schools do. Tax-supported schools, past and present, have not led political or social reform.