Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 2)

It would be a grave mistake to think that American reformers only looked at schools as targets for change.

Reforming individual Americans to be better persons has been in the American blood stream since the Mayflower arrived. Ditto for reforming community institutions to be better places within which to live and work.  Perfecting individuals and community institutions while solving problems of urban slums, corrupt city governments, poverty, racial segregation, corporate over-reach, and anemic economic growth has been steady work for reformers. Time and again these reform movements reached far beyond schools. [i]

As predictable as climbing up a ladder to clean leaves from roof gutters every season, reforms have regularly swept across the nation. Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social, political, and economic 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). [ii]

 Reform movements 

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 workers and consumers, and inefficient institutions including traditional, lockstep schooling.

Both Black and white civil rights advocates sought equal treatment for Blacks in every institution. They 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 creating 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 had a serene 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 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).

*In pursuit of these multiple goals, reformer 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, each generation of school reformers unknowingly 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, inefficient, unproductive schools churning out unskilled graduates). Each generation’s talk and political action did alter some official policies and increased access to public schools but inflated rhetoric followed by downsized policies 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 shouting rhetoric, redefined problems, and pushed policies that the previous one had chased while 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 featuring feverish policy talk, limited policy actions, and erratic implementation spilling over public schools decade after decade. 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 reform talk, adopted policies, and their uneven execution.



Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

4 responses to “Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 2)

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    You say “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 creating human capital necessary for the nation to compete economically in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace.”

    I think these two lines merit some brief indication of who those “equal opportunity” business leaders were and are viewing children in the narrow ( and ugly) terms of “human capital,” meaning more or less worthy of investment. I have not found a serious concern for equal opportunity?

    I think that I would discount the mischief started by Louis Vincent Gerstner Jr. once the CEO of IBM and chairman of IBM’s board from April 1993 until 2002. Gerstner should not be credited with any concern for equal opportunity. He helped to set up the architecture for terrible school reforms and these are still with us, most based on using scores on standardized tests to sort students, teachers, and schools.
    I also find, for example, that equal opportunity did not drive ALEC, The American Legislative Exchange Council, to support anything other than privatizing and profiting from public education. ALEC receives money from hundreds of corporations.

    Some of these corporations have no interest in equal opportunity, except as a slogan or as a title for a well-funded operation. See this example from ALEC’s website.

    Then think about The US Chamber of Commerce. Why did it wait until June 2020 to even bring equal opportunity to the foreground as an issue? Equal opportunity was not really a concern of the business leaders that organization represents… until and significantly, they were confronted by demands from many groups including Black Lives Matters.

    Perhaps I am getting old and cynical, but billionaire funded non-profits are pouring money into “faux partnerships” with public schools and then hurting the local community organizations and democratic governance structures needed to support public schools.

    For example the City Fund, started in 2019 by John Arnold (hedge fund manager, once a trader at Enron) and Reed Hastings (Netflix) has been funding a national and city-specific effort to undermine the professionalism of teachers and teacher preparation programs. See the following for a small sample of many more grants.

    • larrycuban

      Laura, thanks for taking the time to comment and give specific examples. I believe the examples you used, particularly ALEC and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were on target. The point I make elsewhere in the book and in other writings is that major business leaders, not all by any means, mix self-interest (i.e., profit making) and altruism in different ratios, depending upon the times. I do not judge their motives or “real” beliefs, say about equal opportunity. Only that such combined interests particular corporate leaders state serve both investors and the public. The evidence of such statements and programs are there. They may not convince you or me that their actions give weight to the statements but they do exist.

  2. Megan Murray

    I’ve only just started Noliwe Rooks’ Cutting School, but it’s premise is that “profiting from our nation’s failure to provide a high-quality education to all children has become a very big business.” It might be of interest to those interested in this thread.

    Also: “Rooks’s incisive critique breaks down the fraught landscape of ‘segrenomics,’ showing how experimental solutions to the so-called achievement gaps–including charters, vouchers, and cyber schools–rely on, profit from, and ultimately exacerbate disturbingly high levels of racial and economic segregation under the guise of providing equal opportunity.”


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