Here is another segment of the Introduction to my next book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” Part 1 was published July 9, 2020
Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social and political movements have churned across the U.S. and left marks on government, business, and community institutions, including public schools: The Progressive movement (1900s-1950s), the Civil Rights Struggle (1950s-1970s), and Binding Schools to the Economy (1980s-present).
In all three movements, the dominant but often unspoken assumption was that human behavior can be made perfect. Faith that individuals and institutions can improve and correct errors has been at the center of American reform for centuries.
Religious dissenters carried that belief across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower. Nineteenth century anti-slavery advocates fought for abolition and succeeded with the end of the Civil War. Along with “abolitionists” other social reformers flourished in New England and the Midwest fighting for prison reform, ending poverty, building Utopian communities, and caring for the mentally ill. Joining these social reformers were Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and a cadre of school reformers who envisioned a Common School for American children that would make a “more perfect union.”
Progressives like President Theodore Roosevelt, settlement house founder Jane Addams, Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, and novelist Upton Sinclair believed that access to information and knowledge would get Americans to end monopolies, help the immigrant poor, cleanse corruption from cities, and protect the public from greedy corporations. The nation would become more democratic and a better place for all.
Civil rights reformers, using the principles of the Declaration of Independence, believed that the racial caste system oppressing Blacks politically, socially, and economically could be broken to free both Blacks and whites in the South and the rest of the country to become a more equitable nation.
And business-inspired reformers since the 1980s believed that improving schools not only could be done but also when completed would strengthen both the economy and democracy. These confident reformers sought better schools with higher curriculum standards, tougher tests, and stronger accountability systems in place.
The constant belief that imperfect individuals and institutions can be made whole, even perfect, fueled American reformers throughout the 20th century.
Each of these political and social movements sought multiple goals one of which included school reform. Early 20th century Progressives sought to remedy municipal corruption, corporate exploitation of consumers, and inefficient institutions including the traditional, lockstep schooling that encouraged non-thinking and passivity.
Civil Rights advocates pressured federal and state governments to eliminate segregated hospitals, pools, motels, playing fields, and toilets. They demanded unencumbered voting rights. And they wanted urban and rural schooling equal to what white suburban parents received for their children.
And in the closing decades of the 20th century, business leaders, alarmed by an economy falling behind Germany and Japan restructured their industries, outsourced labor, and lobbied state and federal legislators to deregulate industries and lower taxes. Corporate leaders, seeking profits and returns to their investors also pushed equal opportunity for minorities to achieve the American Dream. These business-minded reformers saw U.S. public schools as primary conduits of human capital necessary for the nation to compete economically in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace. Higher graduation requirements, common curriculum standards, and accountability for student test scores were reform-driven policies for producing that all-important human capital.
Binding together these seemingly different reform movements coursing through the American bloodstream over the past century were common features.
- Reformers insisted that state and federal governments remedy political, social, and economic ills and be held accountable for the actions they take (or do not take).
- Reformers had a serene and unquestioned faith in better schools ridding society of individual and societal injustices including crime, discrimination, and economic inequities. They believed schooling could create successful individuals and render American institutions havens of democracy, sources of economic growth, and social justice.
- Reformers, in pursuit of these multiple goals, sought deep policy and practice changes in public schools yet they left untouched the existing age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling.” Thus, school reformers each generation promoting agendas of change ended up preserving, not altering the basic structures of primary and secondary schooling.
Without skipping a beat, each generation of policy elites and activist leaders sought major reforms in government through federal and state legislation including reconfiguring schools. And they succeeded to a degree. The rhetoric of school reform in each generation included a to-do list of past failures that had to be corrected (e.g., hidebound traditional curriculum and practices, schooling inequities, inefficient, unproductive schools churning out unskilled graduates).
Reform rhetoric and political action in these decades did alter some official policies and increased access to public schools but these movements left intact fundamental structures (e.g., the age-graded school and the grammar of schooling). And as each movement wound down, another cohort of school reformers shouted slogans, redefined problems, and pushed projects that the previous one had chased or ignored while again leaving largely unaffected existing school structures.
And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements beginning with excited policy talk, then moving to downsized policy actions, and finally erratic implementation spilling over public schools. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of hyperbolic reform talk, narrowed adoption of policies, and uneven execution.
While the dates of these 20th century movements indicate separate decades, all three were linked in their goals and strategies to previous generations of 19th century reformers insofar as the belief in the perfectability of individuals and institutions.
The next post describes the untoward, even perverse, outcomes that accompanied these reform movements when schooling was the target.