This is the final part of my draft Introduction to “Confessions of a School Reformer.”
The research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.
Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. These educators see such research as an incentive to prove scholars wrong. Such educators continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping students become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs. And the evidence of such positive outcomes is both available and rich.
The issue, then, of the degree to which family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement rubs against not only this body of evidence that there are schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education but also a discomforting and inescapable fact: Formal schooling occupies only a small portion of a child’s day. Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours. That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school. Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace.
Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas, and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.
So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers seldom wrestled with publicly about the connection between individuals, schools, and society remain open to contemporary crusaders:
*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background and what occurs in home and neighborhood?
* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, reform society? If so, how?
There are many ways to answer these questions in trying to determine degrees of impact that these reform movements have had on children and youth including poor and minorities. Individual memoirs (e.g., ), case studies (e.g., , Alex Kotlowitz—Chicago kids), surveys (e.g., Coleman 1966), longitudinal research on groups of children (e.g., Seven and Up, Sean Reardon), and many other designs have established general statements, more often than not challenged by other researchers and, especially policymakers. No design is invulnerable including what I offer in this book., a mix of research, analysis, and experiential data.
Confessions of a School Reformer is one person’s direct experiences in these three reform movements that have swept over the nation’s public schools especially in three cities where I lived and worked. Other accounts may arrive at different answers than what I present here. So be it. Using direct experiences informed by a broad and deep knowledge of the history of schooling as a springboard to delve into each of these reform movements over the past century enveloping public schools is my way of making sense of a complex community institution and its effects upon my life and that of the nation.
The book is ambitious. I connect larger, swirling reform movements with my experiences as a student, teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I reveal my thinking about teaching and school reform at different points in my life and confess errors in beliefs and stumbles in practices. And I draw conclusions that often challenge mainstream wisdom about school reforms over the past century. The book, then, is a historical analysis of school reforms over the past century and a memoir. It is a tricky combination and readers will determine to what degree I succeed.
I have organized the book in alternating chapters of analysis and memoir to answer four questions.
*How did the Progressive movement (1890s-1950s) shape public schooling nationally in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction and in the Pittsburgh schools that I attended as a student.
As a student between 1939-1951, what do I recall and make of my experiences in three schools in the fading years of Progressive school reform?
*How did the Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s) influence the governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally and in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. school systems?
As a teacher and administrator in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. (1956-1967), what classroom and school reforms did I and others design and implement during the Civil Rights movement?
*How did a reform movement aimed at increased economic growth tie schools more closely to the private sector (1970s-present) influencing school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally and in Arlington (VA)?
As the Arlington County superintendent between 1974-1981, what district reforms did the Arlington School Board and I design, adopt, and implement during the standards, testing, and accountability movement that sought to bind more closely schools and the economy?
*How did major reforms adopted and implemented since the early-1980s (e.g., higher state standards and Common Core curricula, access and use of new technologies) influence governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally?
As a practitioner and historian of education 1981-2021, what reforms did I study and what were my conclusions?
The four memoir chapters will contain one additional feature that calls to mind the title of this book. When I describe my direct experiences during a reform movement, I will elaborate my primary beliefs at the time–what my thinking was then–and detail any errors in that thinking and slip-ups in practice that I pursued and committed. Thus, Confessions of a School Reformer.
For example, following the analysis chapter of being a school chief in Virginia during the early years of the standards, testing, and accountability reforms, I detail in the memoir what my ideas and beliefs were then about district improvement. For example, I believed that the district, not the school or classroom, was the primary unit of school reform to improve schooling, especially for children of color. While that belief has substantial merit to it—and I specify those merits in the chapter—I learned from experience then and since that a district-strategy of reform is too narrow. Surely, the district as a key piece to any strategy in improving governance, curriculum, and instruction is worthwhile but such school reform fails to account for the larger social context in the community, state, and nation (e.g., political vulnerability of tax-supported public schools to economic, social and political forces–need I remind readers of the 2020 pandemic and movement for racial justice?) That was an error in my thinking in those years. What I thought then differs from what I think now.
The following chapters document how in America perfecting imperfect individuals and a flawed society drove reformers to engage in over the past century three movements within which schools were also targets for improvement. Historically, faith in formal schooling as paving the road to personal success and national prominence has been an enduring motif. From Andrew Carnegie to W.E.B. DuBois to Lyndon Johnson to a character in the popular West Wing drama, education has been touted as essential to being an individual who is noticed, recognized, and approved, of communities that succor the needy and improve themselves, and of equal importance, reducing inequalities while maintaining a democratic nation.
Schooling was surely important to me as I traversed eight decades as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher immersed in these larger reform movements. Just how important it has been in my life and the events that shaped who I am is a question I explore in the ensuing chapters.
To those readers who have read all four parts, I thank you. Any comments would be appreciated.