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]
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.