2020 marks a quarter-century since Tinkering was published. Still in print, the short book on the history of school reform that David Tyack* and I wrote has been praised and panned. Over the years, David and I have spoken and written about the ideas we expressed in the book about history of U.S. school reform and subsequent shifts that we have seen in reform-minded policies pushed by federal and state authorities. And, of course, the hyperbole that accompanied each reform’s rhetoric, action, and implementation.
We have been asked many questions over the years about the logic of the central argument we made and evidence we had to support it. We have been asked about why schooling (both private and public) seem so familiar to each generation of parents even with new buildings, furnishings, and technologies.
Not long ago, however, I was asked one question that I don’t remember ever being asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward?
That question returns to me during the current pandemic as U.S. public schools shut down for a half-year erratically open for in-person schooling but, more often than not, with remote instruction. The question got me thinking anew about the ever-shifting aims of reformers who champion how schools should be. “Should be” is the key phrase in reform because buried within each major reform that has swept across U.S. schools with either gale-force winds or stiff breezes is a vision of a utopian schooling and a “good” place for children to be.
As schools re-open still in the midst of Covid-19, online instruction for the immediate future will be the preferred way of conducting teacher lessons. I cannot detect even a puff of air for reforming schools. Not even a gentle breeze of reform from policy elites, practitioners, and parents advocating that after Covid-19, all schooling should be remote–surely a fundamental change in the conduct of tax-supported schooling.
This absence of even a soft breeze of reform tells me that parents and employers want schools to be the way they were before we could even spell coronavirus. If I am correct, then, the same tensions that existed prior to the pandemic will eventually surface anew, perhaps next year after most Americans receive a vaccine or the year afterwards. These tensions over what public schools should do in a capitalist democracy where racism and inequalities continue to exist are familiar to some policymakers, practitioners, and historians of education but much less so to most Americans. So I return to Tinkering again.
Remember the overall purpose of tax-supported public schools is to prepare the young to become adults. Stating the purpose, however, neither points to which aspects of adulthood schools should be primary (e.g., getting a job, participating in the community, pushing for social and political reform in the larger culture, etc.). Of equal importance is that stating one or more purposes for schools is only a first step in figuring out the mechanics of schooling. One or a mix of purposes has to be translated into crucial details: how best to organize schools to achieve stated purposes; what will a curriculum look like; what kind of teachers need to be hired, and what daily schedules, and classroom lesson make the most sense to achieve the desired goals of schooling.
–Some reformers want schools to prepare the young for occupations in which there are currently too few skilled workers and managers (see here).
–Some reformers re-create teacher-centered schools that inculcate students with basic content, skills, and civic virtues including patriotism (see here).
–Some reformers seek schools where students interests, passions, and intellect are central to both the curriculum and instruction and their well-being is nurtured (see here)
–Some reformers desire schools where students become adults prepared to work for reducing social and economic inequalities and increasing social justice (see here).
–Some reformers are eager to dismantle the two century-old age-graded school and in its stead replace it with technologically rich settings where individual students have completely personalized playlists tailored to who they are (see here).
Of course, the last utopian vision of pervasive technologies geared to “personalized learning, ” unless it is an end unto itself, has to be hitched to one or the other of the three educational utopias.
No doubt there are other utopian visions and variations of the above ones. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say that all of these utopian visions have been dreamt by earlier generations of reformers.
A century ago, another generation of reformers fought for schools to prepare the young for an industrial economy where both skilled and unskilled hands were needed (see here).
Another generation of reformers wanted schools to prepare the young to be knowledgeable, straight-thinking, and proud Americans of high moral character who would advance their community and nation (see here).
Periodically, past reformers wanted schools to be student-centered in what was learned and how it was learned (see here).
And past reformers saw schools as social laboratories where children and youth can practice creating a better, more just society reducing injustice and inequality (see here).
My point is simple: Tax-supported public schools have had multiple purposes for at least two centuries. Each purpose has a vision of utopia–of what “good” schooling looks like– embedded in it. And over the last century, reformers again and again have contested these competing visions.
So when asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward? I reply that there is no one utopian school, it depends on which purpose of schooling you value the most. If pressed, I will say what I believe. Then I ask the questioner: what is your utopian vision?
Nearly always, the person answers with either one of the above past and present version noted above or a combination of them. I then follow up with the point that there are (and have been) many visions of “good” schools that reformers have tried and that currently during the Covid-19 crisis in which over 200,000 Americans have died we remain in the midst of a three-decade long vision which prizes as the primary purpose of schooling, preparing students to get jobs in an ever-changing economy.
Maybe that vision will persist after the pandemic ends. And maybe not.
*David Tyack died in October 2016. He was 85 years old.