"We Are All School Reformers" (Part 1)

On the first day of a graduate seminar at Stanford University that I taught a few years ago, I asked each of the 20 students to give a two-minute self-introduction detailing their name, what they did prior to graduate school, and why they enrolled in “Good Schools”: Research, Policy, and Practice.” After they introduced themselves, I, too, took the time to say that I had been a former high school teacher and superintendent for over two decades.

In listening to the students I reckoned that about one-third of the students had been teachers (many alums of Teach for America), about a third worked as consultants and policy analysts for education non-profits and had no direct experience in schools (save for their years as students). The remaining students came from backgrounds in business, science, and the arts.

I listened to each student as they told of their classroom experiences as student or teacher or their strong impulse to give the next generation of children and youth a better schooling than they had received. Many expressed a fervent wish to turn failing schools, particularly in urban districts, into successful ones. They wanted to reduce the inequities they saw (or experienced) in schools. This seminar, they felt, would provide answers to the questions they had about how to do such turnarounds.

After hearing their self-introductions and why they had enrolled in this seminar, I said “We are all school reformers.”

Nervous laughter danced around the large table at which we sat. These idealistic, bright 25-to-35 year-olds, fingers poised on the keyboards of their laptops, displayed the very-American optimism about schooling–especially “good” schools– to better the lives of individuals, families, companies, and society. At a time when most Americans want their children to graduate high school and enter college is at its height, faith in schooling–an almost civil religion–reigns. Getting a diploma and college degree is the pathway to success (however defined). Optimism strengthens the already deep faith in the importance of schooling (see here and here).

For readers who may doubt the previous sentence, consider responses to a Gallup opinion poll question: “How important is a college education today–very important, fairly important, or not too important.”

Between 1978 and 2019, “very” or “fairly” important captured 82 to 93 percent of a representative sample of Americans. In 2019, the percentage was 88. The belief that schooling leads to better and wholesome lives is one that most Americans hold now.

Also in the past even before there were tax-supported public schools. Beginning with the Puritans in the 17th century, wave after wave of immigrants from different continents and internal migrants from farm to city sought to make better lives for themselves and families. The reform impulse came on the Mayflower. Fleeing from imperfect institutions in Europe and elsewhere, newcomers sought to build morally unflawed institutions including schools.

Escaping from monarchies where nearly all people in the realm were voiceless, immigrants built a government without king and royalty. All adult white males who owned property could vote (excluded were slaves, Native Americans, and women until the 19th and 20th centuries) . Escaping from rigidly controlled economies, immigrants built one that allowed individual ownership of property and businesses. The abundance of land gave immigrants way of re-inventing themselves. And re-invention included establishing schools. Mid-19th century Common schools would turn the unschooled into citizens and reliable workers. Reform was in the air that Americans breathed (see here)

The reform spirit and its moral rectitude has not flagged over the past four centuries. Unrelenting efforts to improve government, economy, and society came and went through individual and group actions and movements (e.g., 19th century abolitionists, suffragettes, worker unions). And schools as well. Reformers grasped schooling tightly in the hope that their children would become morally strong and move from poverty into middle and upper classes. Schooling was viewed as an elevator. Not only poor and working class Americans prized schooling past and present. Affluent families saw schooling as a necessity–next in importance to the essentials of water, food, and roof over one’s head–to retain their status and wealth for the next generation.

For both the inherent optimism embedded in the American character and its strong linkage to prizing tax-supported schools, for both poor and non-poor, insuring that schools were “good” or improving was a “must.” What happened in the larger society from economic depressions to wars to political movements such as taming monopolies in the late 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in mid-20th century inexorably spilled over schools. There was no wall separating schools from national tremors.

As political, social, and economic changes swept across the nation, students, parents, and practitioners were perennial targets of well-intentioned school reformers, policymakers, and public officials. Many practitioners put reforms into practice or generated their own classroom and school changes. Parents lobbied for reforms in their nearby schools. Either as a target or an actor, stakeholders in public schools experienced externally-imposed reforms time and again. When the nation had a cold, the truthful and age-old cliche pronounced, public schools sneezed. And they have sneezed repeatedly decade after decade. So no reader should be surprised that the history of reform in the U.S. derived from an age-old national faith and optimism in the perfectability of humans and their institutions brought by the earliest immigrants. The passion for individual and social change in both the nation and its schools reveals a stark continuity over centuries and its unrelenting constancy in the lives of Americans even now.

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For U.S. readers of this post (about one-third of this blog’s viewers are international), think for a moment about your time as students for 13-plus years in elementary and secondary schools, as teachers and administrators in and out of schools, and as parents of sons and daughters now attending school. Such a look backward and forward I suspect would establish clearly that at different times you were either the object of reforms (e.g., students) , as participants in putting a school reform into practice (e.g., a teacher or administrator) or now as observers of current school reforms (e.g., parents and taxpayers).

If readers are in their 20s to 40s, they have experienced as students curricula, graduation requirements, tests, and being held responsible for improved school outcomes. These readers went to school at a time when state and federal efforts (e.g., new math and science standards, No Child Left Behind) to prepare graduates to enter the workplace equipped to enter jobs in an information-driven economy. If those readers are now teachers or administrators, they are active in implementing such standards, tests, and accountability in their schools. If they are parents, then they can see contemporary schools preparing their sons and daughters for college and career.

For those readers in their 50s and 60s, as students they have experienced the aftermath of Sputnik and rivalry with the Soviet Union, desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and Back-to-Basics as they spilled over schools in the 1960s and 1970s. New science and math curricula gave way to reforms aimed at reducing segregated schools. Increased federal funding (e.g., Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) to improve low-income children’s academic performance occurred.

As middle-age teachers and administrators, however, they are in the fourth decade of another series of reforms triggered by A Nation at Risk report and poor economic performance of American companies. Public school improvement would strengthen the economy, reformers believed. In most schools and districts, changes stemming from the above reforms continue to be implemented. Parents in their 50s and 60s now observe the shift from school reforms in the wake of Sputnik, the Civil Rights movement, Back-to-Basics to the current ones targeted on college and career.

I am older than most readers of this blog. Those in my generation have experienced the above reforms and even earlier ones. In the next few posts, I will do exactly what I asked readers to do. I attended Pittsburgh (PA) elementary and secondary schools between 1939-1951. I taught high school history in Cleveland (OH) and Washington (D.C.) public schools between 1956-1972. I was a superintendent in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981. Since then I moved from a participant to an observer (and parent of two daughters) and then researcher in schools across the nation. I have been in schools and written about them for the past two decades.

So when I said to my graduate students on the first day of class that “We are all reformers,” I meant that reform is etched into the American character. The impulse came with the earliest immigrants and has continued to this day. As students, professionals, and parents we have experienced, implemented, and observed reforms in the 20th century. It is not something distant and far removed from our lives. It is part of who we are.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

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