The “Magic Bullet” in School Reform

In the recent past, when school reform cheerleaders touted a particular design or program, they would often drop the phrase “magic bullet” into the discussion. While in 2020 the phrase has become passe’ the thought behind it remains solidly planted in reformers’ imaginations.

Today, the words would be used disparagingly since few believe in any “quick fix” for the achievement gap or re-engaging unmotivated students into learning. However, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the search for a “magic” pill or eventually a vaccine has the ring of that outdated phrase.

The phrase, however, was commonly used in earlier decades of school reform. Remember “Career Education” in the 1970s; “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; “systemic school reform” in the 1990s. Don’t forget “choice” in the 1990s when John Chubb and Terry Moe pronounced it as a “panacea.” And for the past decade, champions of “magic bullets” have touted “teacher pay-for-performance,” Reading First, Teach for America, and principals as instructional leaders. I could go on and on but the point of very smart people believing in one or a few “magic bullets” turned out to be duds. Such a phenomenon raises a few obvious questions.

1. What is the origin of the phrase?

2. Why do policymakers, practitioners, parents, and reform-driven folks hunt again and again for the next magic bullet?

3. Are “magic bullets” unique to education?

What is the origin of the phrase? If you guessed the field of medicine, you are correct. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) used “magic bullet” to describe a chemical that “would seek out and specifically destroy invading microbes or tumor cells.” He and another researcher discovered a treatment for syphilis called Salvarsan that destroyed the bacteria causing the disease while not killing healthy cells. Ehrlich’s laboratory work helped create the fields of hematology, immunology, and chemotherapy. In 1908, Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Why do policymakers, practitioners, and reform-driven folks hunt again and again for the next “magic bullet?” Ah, this is a tougher question. You cannot Google an answer since it is deeply embedded in the popular hope of tax-supported public schools solving problems besetting a democracy.

For nearly two hundred years, schools have been expected, at various times, to create engaged citizens, instill moral character, sustain community values, reduce social inequities, prepare youth for the labor market, and produce independent thinkers. Since the early 20th century, determined reformers have dreamed of improving government, society, and culture through schooling the young. Yes, achieve all of these competing purposes and, in addition, solve serious problems from poverty to slow economic growth to defending the nation, and even reduce obesity. The constant failure to do so speaks to the frustrated but yet undeterred reform-driven efforts captured in two book titles: Tinkering toward Utopia and Spinning Wheels. And that is why the hunt for “magic bullets” persists.

Are “magic bullets” unique to education? There is a long and short answer.
The long answer is historical and has to do with American colonies founded nearly four centuries ago by dissenters, free thinkers, and outcasts—emigrants from despotic monarchies who yearned for freedom, liberty, and independence–but also believed that humans can be made perfect. Ergo, reform the individual and society. They also believed that too much power in the hands of a few could damage these values. These colonists rebelled against the British monarchy in 1775 and achieved their independence after an eight-year war.

Experiments in government led to a Constitution that created a federal system of governing with explicitly divided powers between the national,s state, and local authorities. A slowly evolving democratic society over the next two centuries became increasingly and steadily inclusive after Americans expunged slavery in a bloody Civil War, then a century later ended a brutal caste system, and in the last half-century fought furious battles over who should be treated as equal.

Those colonists, Founders, and subsequent generations not only fashioned a federal government with separated powers but they also believed in the perfectibility of humankind through reason, education, and law. Those beliefs fueled constant reform efforts over the past few centuries for individuals and institutions to improve themselves. Thus, government agencies, churches, medical practice, criminal justice, and, yes, public schools have been the target for reform. That’s the long answer.

The short answer is that “magic bullets” aimed at unraveling knotty problems are common across institutions. Take medicine and the “war on cancer” announced in 1971. Since then, over $200 billion has been spent by public and private agencies to cure more than 100 diseases grouped under the word cancer. With over a half-million deaths a year and 1.5 million cases in the U.S. in 2009, cancer is the second leading cause of death just behind heart disease. Consider further than 1 out of 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. “Magic bullets” in prevention and treatment (new chemo drugs, radiation pellets, and surgical procedures) have been announced time and again since 1971 and still cancer persists.

Today, when educational and medical reformers use the language of reform they deny that “magic bullets” can end serious problems and diseases. They often refer to prevention and awareness. And yet, the allure of a new program, a new drug continues to entice Americans into believing that the cure is just around the corner.



Filed under compare education and medicine, school reform policies

2 responses to “The “Magic Bullet” in School Reform

  1. jeffreybowen

    I enjoyed the way you succinctly summarize major happenings in our history. You seem to infer one of my favorite sayings about American educational reformers, particularly those who have something to sell: first you shoot the arrow (magic bullet,), then you paint the target! Stay well and thanks!

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