Category Archives: Reforming schools

Another Look at “Tinkering Toward Utopia”

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Authentic assessment?

No Child Left Behind drove a stake into its heart. OK, that is a bit dramatic but the standards, tests, and accountability movement that began in the early 1980s, picking up speed in the 1990s, then accelerating to warp drive with the passage of NCLB brushed aside this Progressive instructional reform called “authentic assessment.”* Pick your metaphor but, save for scattered teachers across America who began teaching during the height of “authentic assessment,” few new superintendents, novice principals, and rookie teachers, much less reform-minded parents have ever heard of this Progressive way of assessing student learning.

Where and When Did Authentic Assessment Originate?

In the 1980s following A Nation at Risk report state policymakers rushed to raise curriculum standards and increase school and district accountability. One outcome of these cascading reforms across the country was a sharp increase in students taking required standardized tests. By the late-1980s and early 1990s, Progressives* of the day such as Deborah Meier, Grant Wiggins, Fred Newmann, Linda Darling Hammond, and Ted Sizer sought to make schooling more demanding of students intellectually in tasks, activities, and assessments. Meier, Sizer, and others, for example, created and organized schools with teachers who pushed students to not only think about the content and skills they learned in ways that went well beyond what multiple-choice items on a standardized test would capture but also to demonstrate to others through portfolios and performance tasks–what they learned and apply that learning to the world in which they lived. “Authentic assessments” became an often-mentioned instructional reform. The phrase “performance assessment” was also used interchangeably with “authentic assessment.”

What Problems Did Authentic Assessment Intend To Solve?

Coming in the wake of the increased standardized testing and the narrowing of the curriculum to those tested subjects–reading and math–learning ,especially in poor and minority schools, was reduced to covering what would be on the tests and repetitive tasks. Standardized tests are limited severely in what they measure of student learning, much less performance. Yet policymakers looked to these tests as accurate measures of student outcomes. Finally, students were disengaged and often reduced to passivity. Seeing such a backwash of problems from mandated testing, instructionally-driven reformers saw authentic assessment (no more quote marks for rest of post) as a way to return teaching and learning to its Progressive roots of engaging students through connecting content and skills to real world tasks thereby increasing student participation in learning (see here and here).

What Does Authentic Assessment Look Like in Classrooms?

I could not find a teacher’s lesson or student description of authentic assessment in print. There may be such descriptions but I found none. What I did find after many searches were video clips of schools committed to authentic assessment and a third grade teacher describing what she did with English Language Learners (see here, here, and here).

I was surprised by this dearth of sources describing what actually occurs in classrooms. Designing and applying authentic assessment tasks in a classroom lesson and unit of instruction takes a lot of work by teachers. True, all of the work is front-loaded the first few times but the assessment can be used often afterwards. There are shortcuts, of course, in designing such assessments and locating tasks for students to perform. Nonetheless, much time is involved in finding the right real-world task that captures the student learning outcome that the teacher seeks to assess. I apologize to readers for not having such examples.**

Perhaps I looked in the wrong places or was not persistent enough. If readers know of descriptions of actual classroom lessons that eluded me, please send me the links.

Did Authentic assessment Work?

Here is the bind that champions of authentic assessment find themselves in. If “work” means effectiveness in determining whether students have learned the required content and skills and performed satisfactorily on mandated state tests, to what degree has authentic assessment aided in the outcome.Simply put, here is the bind. Does a classroom teacher or the principal of school committed to authentic assessment through student portfolios look to scores on state standardized tests as evidence of learning? Or does the teacher, school, or district design different measures that would determine the extent that students learned? Or do both matter?

Answers to the questions pose a contradiction since state tests are limited measures of student learning of content and skills that fail to grasp the critical skills gained from assessing discrete tasks authentically. The answer to the other question is “yes” which means an enormous investment in time from teachers and others, a calculation that both teachers and administrators have to make, given the other demands upon teachers during the school day.

When the state of Vermont, for example, adopted portfolios as an authentic assessment rather than standardized tests, RAND researchers evaluated whether portfolios supplied sufficient and accurate data on student performance. They concluded that the data they collected was less in quality than traditional standardized test scores.

What Happened to Authentic Assessment?

Like many Progressive additions to teachers’ repertoires over the decades, the excitement surrounding its introduction in the late-1980s and early 1990s waned. The idea of teachers and schools designing assessment tasks that capture whether students can apply what they have learned, of course, continues to appear in many teachers’ lessons within the nation’s 100,000 schools. Teachers have constantly blended traditional and Progressive ways of teaching and learning over the decades. But the boosterism and hoopla surrounding authentic assessment have disappeared. Standardized tests remain the gold standard in 2020 for assessing student learning.


*I use the word Progressive to describe authentic assessment since it is aimed at the principle of children learning by doing and engaging student’s attention and participation in real world tasks. These were the aims of the early 20th century Pedagogical Progressive and current educators committed to constructivist teaching and learning.

**Please see comments from readers who recommended sources that I have not included. Especially Bob Lenz’s comments and the links he provides to current performance assessments. Thank you, Bob.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 2)

Do individuals like you and me know for sure at the time something occurred that it was momentous, a historic turning point in the flow of events and individual lives. Probably not.

After all, it is only in retrospect–after the future becomes the present–that people look back at prior events and then can pinpoint something that occurred as pivotal. Surely, in 1859 when John Brown attacked the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry (VA) to get weapons to lead a slave rebellion, neither he nor most Americans knew that his actions (for which he was put to death) became instrumental in launching the Civil War over a year later.

Some other examples of not knowing when an event is a turning point:

When silversmith Paul Revere set out on his midnight ride on April 18, 1775 to alert militias in Lexington and Concord that British regulars were marching toward them to destroy stockpiled munitions, he surely did not know that the next morning’s events would be the beginning of the end of the 13 British colonies with a Declaration of Independence the following year and a war that lasted until 1783 leading to the formation of the United States of America.

The initial people infected with the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in late-2019 did not know that authorities would lockdown the city of 11 million as Covid-19 swept across neighborhoods. And then listening to the President of the United States in January and February 2020 when he publicly said that the virus would go away when it got warmer gave no hint or even act as if it was a major event until mid-March. Since then it has surely become a serious moment in his presidency.

And so I would make the same point about turning points for climate change, U.S. democracy, and tax-supported public schooling. Observers a decade or more from now would be in a far better position to determine what was or was not a pivotal moment.

Are we now, then, in a pivotal moment for serious federal, state, and local action on climate change? Yes, I believe so.

Climate Change

The frequency and intensity of fires, hurricanes, and floods in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 added up to more than a dozen billion-dollar weather calamities.

Moreover, 2020 public opinion polls register a majority to nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe that “global warming is caused mostly by human activity” (57%) and “is affecting the weather” (64%). And 63% of Americans said they were “worried about global warming.” Furthermore, both awareness and concern over climate change have increased over time

Climate change deniers (see here and here) say these wildfires, hurricanes, and rising waters are instances of an unusual year, not the result of human activity that has caused rises in the planet’s temperature leading to increased numbers of extreme weather events.

In 2030 or beyond, observers may look back on 2020 as a pivot point in the U.S.’s current posture of official denial of scientific studies that have established strong evidence of climate change. Since 2020, federal, state, and local political leaders did move ahead with a Green New Deal, cap-and trade laws, and sharp expansion of renewable energy measures–all to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By 2030, the terminology may well have changes and extreme weather events will now have an adjective: Climate fires, climate, hurricanes, and climate floods.

Decline of democracy

Today democracies don’t die at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders–presidents, prime ministers…. Many citizens are not fully aware of what’s happening until it is too late.”

The argument many frightened citizens, political scientists, business leaders, and lawmakers put forth is that forces at work in the U.S. for decades–the colossal economic divide in income and wealth between rich, middle class, and poor; political divide of citizenry into “red” and “blue” states; whether to wear a mask of not during the pandemic; questions about the legitimacy of elected leaders–are undermining U.S. democratic norms and practices. The current White House occupant’s attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in and absentee ballots for the November election, media (“fake news”), and slow-footed response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans are illustrations of these long-simmering issues in democratic governance. These current conditions make the 2020 election a pivot point in the life of this 231 year-old democracy.

Reform of public schooling

Standardized tests will not disappear. The entrenched mindset of both Democrat and Republican state and federal legislators, most parents, and taxpayers is that some kind of standardized test is essential to determine how well students show they have grasped required content and skills. What kind of test and its uses for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students remain contested but will persist nonetheless.

That mindset goes back to the mid-1980s when state governments established curriculum standards and tests to measure achievement of those standards. With No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) standardized tests remain crucial even with all of the drawbacks described above. Yes, public support for standardized tests has slipped–especially in the gasping final years of NCLB–still overall, opinion polls document that the public wants some form of tests for students to demonstrate academic achievement (see here and here). And an infrastructure for those laws continues to exist. What is clear from the available evidence is that this infrastructure remains unchallenged in 2020 by those seeking to reform public schools.

Here’s a brief look at that unchallenged infrastructure:

Organization of U.S. schooling

The age-graded school remains the “real” school that nearly all Americans take for granted. The age-graded school contains within it what David Tyack and I have called “the grammar of schooling.” And that “grammar” shapes both student and teacher behaviors while meeting the expectations of parents and taxpayers.

I have neither seen nor heard of attempts to upend or alter this form of school organization.

Curriculum and its assessment

The embrace of the Common Core curriculum across the nation since 2010 has been nearly complete. Apart from suggested course additions such as courses on ethnic studies, social justice, both of which have been on some reformers’ agendas prior to the pandemic), I have yet to see plans to alter that embrace.

If anything, the re-opening of schools dependent upon remote instruction means that teachers and students will surely follow each state’s and district’s version of the Common Core.

As for assessment, district-wide and teacher-made assessments, both to determine what has been learned, will continue geared to the Common Core content and skills. And so will standardized tests persist after the pandemic ends.

Classroom instruction

The on-the-dime turn of U.S. schools from in-person lessons to online instruction surely seems like a precursor to extensive classroom reform once the pandemic ends. Because of dominant beliefs in standardized testing and grades harnessed to the organizational “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school described above, however, I do not foresee any dramatic shift in how teachers teach.

Yes, I believe that there will be more online instruction because now nearly all students will have access to devices both at school and at home. And the year-long forced experiment in distance instruction will have given both teachers and students experience in use of the medium. As most teachers have created hybrids of Progressive and traditional instructional activities, many teachers can (and will) incorporate online instruction into their existing teaching repertoire such as students doing independent and small group work. But it will not become the mainstream way of schooling American children simply because of the pandemic experience with online teaching has shaped at least one generation’s view of the limits of such instruction and the importance of face-to-face instruction and social interaction. More important is the role of public schools to do so much more (e.g., socialization, custodial) than cover required content and skills.

Contrary to climate change and democracy being at pivotal points in the history of the U.S., I do not see public schooling sharing that moment.


Filed under Reforming schools

A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 1)

As a historian I often wonder whether individuals knew at the time something occurred that it was momentous, a historic turning point in the flow of events and their lives.

*Did President Herbert Hoover know in late-October 1929 following the crash of the stock market that the Great Depression would begin shortly afterwards and last over a decade. And he would be blamed for it?

*Did Rosa Parks know when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on that Montgomery (AL) bus that she would become the icon for the bus boycott in that city and for spurring a civil rights movement?

*Did Milo Cutter, one of the St. Paul (MN) veteran teachers who founded the first charter school in the nation, know in 1992 that City Academy would be in the vanguard of a movement that nearly three decades later would have over 7,000 schools enrolling over three million students?

*Does a college-educated, unemployed Millennial saddled with debt in the midst of the 2020 pandemic know that her odds of getting a decent-paying job, accumulating as much wealth as her parents and grandparents did are against her and that she may end up poorer than both?

The answer to the four questions is no. In the middle of an event that is in retrospect momentous, few, if any, realize it. “Retrospect” is the key word in the last sentence. Only in looking back can one realize that an event was pivotal.

There are exceptions, of course. Consider how the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 led to swift political, social, and economic changes. As these murders shook Americans, so did September 11, 2001 that launched a “war on terror.” These events were immediately recognized by most Americans as pivotal moments in the history of the nation.

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, protests for social justice, a shattered economy, intense fires raging along the entire West coast, frequent and slow-moving hurricanes that exceed previous years, and a President for whom a majority of the country disapproves–are Americans in the midst of a pivotal moment?

I believe so but, truth be told, as a historian, school practitioner, and retired professor I have no special expertise or insight that would convince me as well as readers that I may be correct about this turning point. The fact is: I cannot look around the corner and see what is coming. But I do have some informed guesses.

*The bounce-back economy

The Great Recession of 2008 as President Barack Obama began his first term stunned the nation with a housing market that collapsed, a stock market that dropped like a lead weight in water, double-digit unemployment, and sky-is-falling pronouncements from economists and public officials. Recovery from the Great Recession in large part due to the intervention of the federal government, depending upon which metrics are used (e.g., size of Gross Domestic Product, unemployment rate, consumer spending, return of stock market to pre-2008 highs), occurred as early as 2010 and as late as 2016. Obama’s successor in the White House benefited from that strong economic bounce-back until the pandemic busted it.

The pandemic-induced recession closed businesses. laid off employees, and sharply reduced consumer spending similar to what occurred over a decade ago. What shapes the depth and length of the recovery is the degree to which the federal government intervenes (the CARES ACT of 2020 and subsequent infusions of money into the economy). Without knowing when the pandemic will end, economists do predict recovery from the recession but are uncertain whether it will be a fast or slow one (see here, here, and here)

*Third Reconstruction and Race in America

The First Reconstruction (1865-1877) freed slaves, made Blacks citizens, and gave them the right to vote in three amendments to the Constitution. The federal government instituted military rule and established the Freedmen’s Bureau to help ex-slaves own land, get schooled, and insure that they voted free of violence. Black farm ownership expanded. Illiteracy plunged. And black officials were elected mayors, to state offices, and the U.S. Congress.

A violent white backlash–the time when the Ku Klux Klan began–to these revolutionary changes were initially put down by federal troops stationed in the South but when they removed in 1877, control of state governments fell into the hands of ex-Confederate officials. That was the first Reconstruction (see here and here).

The Second Reconstruction (1954-1969) was called the civil rights movement that included the U.S. Supreme Court’s banning of racial segregation in schools and passage of the 1964 Civil rights Act with the Voting Rights Act in the following year. Both ended much of the existing de jure segregation in public facilities and led to increasing numbers of elected Black officials in local, state, and federal posts. De facto racial discrimination in employment, housing, policing, and schooling, however, remained (see here and here)

Third Reconstruction? (2013-

In 2013, after the man who had shot and killed 17 year-old Travon Martin was acquitted, three women of color formed Black Lives Matter, a nonviolent organization practicing civil disobedience. Later incidents of Michael Brown being shot in Ferguson (MO) and Eric Garner dying from a policeman’s neck hold expanded the decentralized organization across the country.

And then police killings of Black men and a woman in the first five months of 2020 triggered massive protests of both whites and Blacks across the nation. About 25 million people, according to one poll, took part in anti-police-brutality protests, that, if accurate, would make this the largest protest movement in American history.

And for the first time, two of three Americans–according to a recent Gallup poll–support racial protests. This quest for racial justice and non-discriminatory policing, many believe is the beginning of the Third Reconstruction, another effort to rid the nation of the virus of racism.

Part 2 will take up whether 2020 is a pivotal moment for doing something serious to reduce climate change, stop the erosion of democracy in the U.S.and, of course, reform tax-supported public schooling.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Can Covid-19 Take School Reform in a New and Different Direction?

Covid-19 offers the opportunity to think anew and differently about the direction of schooling in America. Chances are it won’t happen.

Consider mandated state tests. U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos said states could waive the spring tests which occurred at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. As to whether the Secretary of Education will permit states to waive the fall administration of those tests is yet to be decided. In mid-July, one of her Assistant Secretaries said that “[a]ccountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs.” He told reporters that “Our instinct would not be to give those waivers.”

Now, that is goofy. Since the default option for schooling has been remote instruction during the spring and fall semesters with some districts opting for hybrids of it and in-person classroom lessons. What makes a decision to give state tests as mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) particularly dumb is that student attendance rates that usually run above 90-95 percent during the 36-week school year have been running well below that figure and in some instances 80 percent attendance especially for those schools with high numbers of low-income minorities (see here, here, and here).

Moreover, continuing technical lapses have occurred before and during remote instruction. Such glitches weakens confidence when (and if) districts seek to cut costs by using algorithms to grade standardized tests thereby undercutting claims that tests are needed for accountability.

And ignoring that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are exquisitely correlated with a school’s test performance (see here), what’s the point of giving the test? Accountability, the U.S. Secretary of Education would answer. But when you know already that low poverty schools will rack up high scores on these state tests and that high poverty schools will again perform poorly on these tests–where is the accountability?

Finally, if these tests were useful for teachers to tailor their lessons and individualize instruction, that would be a strong reason to administer them. But they are not useful, according to teachers. Or consider when the tests are administered and results finally arrive even broken out for individual students–by that time, the students are no longer with that teacher. They moved on to another grade or subject.

Dropping these mandated state tests and replacing them with ones that are useful to teachers in constructing group and individual lessons and, just as important, other ways of assessing whether students achieve curriculum standards would be a positive direction growing out of the pandemic. Will it occur. probably not.

Why do I say that?

With no national leadership on the Covid-19 crisis in basic things such as national testing for the virus, tracking infections, coordinating purchasing of essential supplies and drugs–all decisions have being left to 50 state governors and thousands of local mayors–everyone has scrambled. Responses by localities had produced a crazy patchwork quilt

The lack of national educational leadership is just as transparent. The U.S. Secretary of Education is missing-in-action. So 13,000-plus districts are on their own in deciding when and how to re-open for students and assess student progress. Another patchwork quilt in the making.

In Iowa, for example, where the governor mandated all districts to re-open for in-person instruction, the threshold percentage for infections permitting remote instruction was set so high that nearly all districts had to reopen for face-to-face instruction. Not in Des Moines. Even when the infection rate was below the percentage set by the state, the school board and superintendent defied the governor and shifted from in-person classrooms to remote instruction.

With such massive decentralized decision-making on even the most basic point–remote or in-person instruction–thoughtful approaches to alternative ways of assessing students drop off the agenda when daily questions come from parents, teachers, and students deal deeply concerned with safety issues and difficulties of distance learning and its quality.

Saying all of the above, however, will not mean standardized tests will disappear. The entrenched mindset of both Democrat and Republican state and federal legislators, most parents, and taxpayers is that some kind of standardized test is essential to determine how well students show they have grasped required content and skills. What kind of test and its uses for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students remain contested but will persist nonetheless.

That mindset goes back to the mid-1980s when state governments established curriculum standards and tests to measure achievement of those standards. With No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) standardized tests remain crucial even with all of the drawbacks described above. Yes, public support for standardized tests has slipped–especially in the gasping final years of NCLB–still overall, opinion polls document that the public wants some form of tests for students to demonstrate academic achievement (see here and here). And an infrastructure for those laws continues to exist.

So new and different thinking post-pandemic about the direction and quality of tax-supported schooling are dead-on-arrival.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

The Pandemic Pivot: Turning Temporary Changes into Lasting Reform (Alfie Kohn)

Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior. He is a proponent of progressive education and has offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research. Wikipedia

This post appeared on September 3, 2020,

You know you really should walk or bike more often, but the car is just so darned convenient. Then one day it breaks down and the replacement part won’t be available for quite awhile. The fates have conspired to get you some much-needed exercise while also reducing your carbon footprint! But what happens when the repair can finally be made? Will this serendipitous carfree interlude become a permanent change, or will you once again be driving everywhere?

Here’s the analogous choice that educators will soon face: Amid all the awfulness, the pandemic has yielded a few accidental benefits, such as the suspension of state exams, college admissions tests, and conventional grading. But will we cement these changes into place for the long haul?

That outcome is far from certain because of a fundamental truth: What people do matters less than the reasons they do it. That applies to individual behaviors: Kids, for example, are much less likely to act generously over time if they had been rewarded earlier for helping. It also applies to social policies: If, say, early-childhood education is justified primarily as an economic “investment,” then our commitment to it will prove fragile. Thus, it won’t be easy to pivot to a deeper rationale for eliminating something that we stopped doing only while — and because — regular schooling is on hiatus.

Of course, much of what the shutdown has done to education has been far from desirable. It would be worrisome if we continued to lean on online instruction — an all-too-plausible scenario since it’s cheaper for school districts and irresistible to those who are overawed by technology. Similarly, the benefits of having students learn in small groups may be jeopardized not only by their being stuck at home but by social-distancing requirements even after they’re back in classrooms.

However, let’s focus on those three recent shifts that I believe are beneficial (for reasons I’ve explained at length elsewhere) but that have been triggered by a temporary situation. Once that situation has changed, can we avoid returning to practices that never made sense in the first place?

1. State and district testing

The problems with standardized tests aren’t just a function of overusing or attaching high stakes to them. By their very nature, they fail to capture the intellectual proficiencies that matter most. High scores are either meaningless (because they are highly correlated with socioeconomic status) or actually worrisome (because of all the time diverted from meaningful learning to teach test-taking skills).

After testing was essentially halted last spring for logistical reasons, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss expressed hope that we were finally “seeing the collapse of the two-decade-old bipartisan consensus among major policymakers that testing was the key lever for holding students, schools and teachers ‘accountable.’…States are learning they can live without them.” Indeed, legislators in several states are pushing to extend the moratorium on at least some of their tests — or to strip them of punitive consequences. Unfortunately, these efforts are typically still driven either by pandemic-based concerns, which will eventually evaporate, or by financial considerations. (Whenever saving money is the primary reason for doing something, chances are it will be done badly, temporarily, or both.)

Worse, other states, like Texas, committed early to a resumption of testing, and some policy makers are actually proposing even more tests to measure the (testable facts and skills) that students supposedly forgot during the lockdown. Others suggest shifting to online exams, which solves none of the problems associated with testing itself and may actually create new ones since this mode of administration further handicaps vulnerable students.

We need to stress that, given the availability of better strategies, standardized testing was never necessary for assessing learning; that we’ve known for two decades how such tests are particularly harmful to students of color and those from poor neighborhoods; and that many of the uses to which standardized testing has been put — for example, serving as the basis for teacher merit pay or for forcing struggling students to repeat a grade — are objectionable in their own right.

2. Admissions testing

Even before the coronavirus struck, more than a thousand colleges and universities had stopped requiring applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT — and for good reasons. These tests privilege the privileged and are poor predictors of academic performance, particularly after freshman year. The good news is that still more colleges hopped on the bandwagon when the lockdown started last spring. In fact, a few schools have now gone “test blind,” which means they won’t even look at these scores.

Many prestigious schools and large state universities, however, are still requiring the SAT or ACT. Moreover, as Education Week reported, “The vast majority of new college [test-optional] policies cover only the graduating high school Class of 2021, and others have set the policies as pilot programs, limited them to in-state students or those with minimum GPAs, or added other caveats.”

3. Grades

There were excellent reasons, based on fairness, for both K-12 schools and colleges to shift to pass/fail grading — or suspend grades altogether — during the pandemic. There are equally excellent reasons, grounded in research about learning and motivation, to eliminate grades permanently: Students led to focus on snagging an A or 100 tend to think less deeply, avoid challenging tasks, and lose interest in the learning itself as compared to students in a grade-free environment.

In short, we need to demonstrate that doing without testing and grading isn’t just possible but preferable, that alternatives to them work well, and, most important for ensuring lasting change, that the primary argument for halting these practices is neither new nor situational: We’ve always been able to do better. This is an actionable as well as a teachable moment — a chance to turn a epidemiological crisis into an educational opportunity.


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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 3)

Covid-19 has not only frozen prior reforms–BC (Before Covid)–see Parts 1 and 2–but the spread of software and devices throughout schools prior to the coronavirus pandemic has led to a total embrace of online instruction or DC, During Covid-19. Districts are providing families with laptops and tablets like popcorn.

I take up particularly the work of entrepreneurs and school districts to spread “personalization” software and claims of tailoring teaching and learning to each student, a reform that will finally reach the Holy Grail of mass schooling–individualized learning at home and school. Using devices and software is now not a choice, it is a must. *

That is the story I want to tell. I begin with the word, palimpsest:

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

Personalized instruction in 2020 is like a palimpsest.

Tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student and given students control over their learning has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and now.

The School of One, Summit Schools, and the Khan Lab school are different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago.

Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized instruction–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

What I do in the rest of this post is clarify the original text of Progressive education a century ago, fast-forward to the 1960s when that Progressive impulse surfaced again, and leap ahead to the early 2000s for the current effort to personalize instruction, connecting it to the Progressive reforms decades earlier.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and his embrace of science.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers”  during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured everything that was nailed down or moved. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives”and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neoprogressive reformers, borrowing from their  earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and individualized learning, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade.

Personalized Instruction During Covid

In the midst of wholesale online instruction during the pandemic and the proliferation of Zoom, the pumped up language accompanying “personalized instruction” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

With the suspension of state tests during the pandemic, however, few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized instruction” in their schools need look over their shoulders fearful of the state or local parents taking note of these conflicts.

But a puzzle about remote instruction remains during Covid-19. How does an elementary school teacher with 30 students or a secondary teachers with 130 or more students “personalize” instruction online five hours a day. This puzzle has yet to be solved.

Before Covid, innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered instruction,   and “blended instruction”  were written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education. Today, current “pedagogical” and efficiency-minded Progressives committed to “personalized instruction” are writing their script over previous reformers during the discombobulation of schooling by Covid-19. 


*Elizabeth Brott Beese, a reader of my blog on “personalized” instruction, has researched different ways of parsing “personalized” and come up with her own. See here.

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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 2)

What was school reform like before Covid-19 ( BC)?

Since the mid-1980s, U.S. public schools had been enthralled with and institutionalized a series of reforms that are now called the “standards, testing, and accountability movement.” It is nearly three decades long.

Recall that the Progressive movement began in the 1890s and, depending upon the historian one reads, lasted until the 1920s or through World War II. The other reform movement that flowed across the schools had a shorter life-span. The civil rights movement spilling over public schools is usually dated by the 1954 Brown decision and peters out by the mid-1970s. Soon to be overtaken by the “standards, testing, and accountability” reforms that readers know so well.

Civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors turned public schools in the 1980s to building human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]

These leaders and foundation officials over the past three decades have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, common curriculum standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to determine district and school “success” and “failure.”

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) collected converted state initiatives into federal policy under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by business and civic leaders and entrepreneurial policymakers who cherry-picked anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to convince Americans that the result would be strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.

A jerry-built reform strategy of ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to improve public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc–now defunct), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Summit Schools, Green Dot), and, under NCLB, requiring districts to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress targets or be closed. NCLB had a legislative do-over in 2016 and is now called Every Student Succeeds Act.

This standards, testing, and accountability regime existed Before Covid-19 hit. With the closing of schools in March 2020 and the stunning shift to remote instruction and uncertainty when most U.S. students will return to face-to-face instruction, these reforms in curriculum standards, annual tests, and accountability mechanisms to insure responsibility for student outcomes are frozen in place. Even state tests for the upcoming school year, if U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has her way.

Alfie Kohn believes that the pandemic is a pivot point for school districts to pull back from standardized tests, how colleges admit students, and reassess grades that teachers are required to give. Part of me wants to join Kohn in his belief that the pandemic can trigger deep and important changes.Part of me, the part that has studied school reform, however, says that it is possible but improbable that such changes will occur.

Another major reform strategy existed before Covid-19 struck. Giving all teachers and students access to instructional technology (e.g., laptops, tablets, etc.) and expecting their use in daily lessons, technology-driven reformers saw these devices and an array of software as ways of improving both teaching and student learning.

Technology reforms Before Covid-19

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a brief look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English (to meet NCLB requirements) fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and program playlists tailored to each student’s academic profile (often called “personalization”) had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

As for the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) in the 1980s and 1990s became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another set of reasons for computers in schools:

*Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other student assessments will be on computers.

*Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

*The dream of “personalizing” instruction–in-person teaching and software tailored to individual differences in each and every child–can now become a reality with every student having a device at school and at home.

The constant chasing of a technological solution to a teaching and learning problem captures the BC experience of school reform.

And it is here that BC technology reforms slide over to DC–During Covid Reforms. I take up the nation’s school districts embracing remote instruction as a temporary replacement for in-person schooling in Part 3.


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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 1)

Face-to-face schooling without minimal risk from getting infected with the coronavirus will be dicey until an approved vaccine shown to have high effectiveness and sufficient immunity is available to over 50 million students and nearly 4 million teachers.

Already two school years in the U.S. have been seriously impacted (March 2020 through January 2021). Effective vaccines, at best, will be available to Americans sometime in 2021. Shaking out data on which of the many vaccines being developed work best and provide mid- to-long-term immunity will occur throughout the calendar year of 2021. In short, until there is scientifically determined confidence that particular vaccines immunize children and adults at least three school years will be shot.

In such a stretch of time, forget about school reform. What Americans want is a swift return to “normalcy” and a new definition of “success”: Not high test scores, rates of graduation or admission to college, no, “success” will be just opening simply schoolhouse doors and having teachers teaching lessons.

Whoa! What about the sudden and massive turn to remote instruction for K-12 children and youth throughout spring and fall 2020? Isn’t that a reform?

No, it is not. Reforms are intentionally-designed changes aimed at improving what happens in schools. The immediate and national embrace of remote instruction was a necessity-driven, unsought change that upturned regular schooling? Yes, it is a change but not a reform.

The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time and in the fall to the Xmas holidays.

Schooling, as Americans have surely known it, has, indeed, been “disrupted” But not in the way that Harvard’s Business School Professor Clayton Christensen had predicted over a decade ago.

As an Education Week journalist recalled recently: …the spread of technology-based innovations in K-12 bears little resemblance to the ambitious claims that outsiders have been making for years. Back in 2008, for example, innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen predicted in his much-hyped book Disrupting Class that half of all high school classes would be online by 2019, radically transforming the nature of public education.

No one, of course, could have (or did) predict a viral plague that still has no treatment (as I write in September) driving public schools to rely on distance instruction. Not half of “all high school classes,” as Christensen said, but nearly all U.S. students in 2020 are sitting in kitchens, living rooms, or bedrooms listening to their on-screen teachers and then tapping away at their keyboards to meet with small groups on-screen, and submitting their assignments. That is “disruption.”

Not in any planned, intentional way–the usual definition of a school reform–educators have mandated in over 13,000 school districts across the country the switch to remote instruction. School boards and superintendents were utterly dependent upon the expertise of health officials who themselves were uncertain about the nature of the catastrophic plague that had, by early September, already infected over five million Americans and killed nearly 200,000.

I cannot recall a historical case of such massive and quick change in schooling except for New Orleans. Surely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 decimated parish schools; the state moved quickly to redesign the district by converting nearly all district schools into charters. These schools opened a year or so later. Students’ learning losses after being out of school for year or more were large (see here). Yet, according to some researchers, these schools’ test scores and graduation rates have improved (see here).

Funding and school organization definitely changed in New Orleans. The decades-long reform idea of parental choice dominated post-Katrina schooling. No other district in the U.S. that I know of has experienced such total and rapid change. If readers know of such Katrina-like transformations, please let me know.

Except for how New Orleans teachers teach. My hunch is that the rise in test scores and graduation rates mirrored teachers’ intense focus on insuring that students would do well on state tests. Which, if my guess is accurate, means a pedagogy close to traditional teacher-directed instruction dominated lessons. In all of the studies I have looked at regarding New Orleans after Katrina, I have yet to find one that takes up the simple question of: how do most New Orleans teachers in these charters teach? Again, if readers know of such studies of teaching in New Orleans, please let me know.

Covid-19’s rapid spread across the nation led to the warp-like speed of shifting from face-to-face classroom interactions to Zoomed remote instruction. Unlike most reforms that are introduced in a few classrooms or as pilot projects to determine what bugs have to remedied, online instruction smacked everyone between the eyes immediately.

Is, then, this embrace, reluctant as it may be, a school reform? Necessity, not ideology, school planning and systematic trials, drove the dramatic change. Because U.S. schools before Covid-19 were already managing different reforms, the coronavirus halted ongoing efforts to improve schooling, putting current ones in a deep freeze.

In subsequent posts I will take up the array of school reforms in BC (Before Covid), DC (During Covid), and AC (After Covid).


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Are Students “Consumers”?(David Labaree)

David Labaree is a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He blogs on schooling, history, and writing.

Observers of American education have frequently noted that the general direction of educational reform over the years has not been forward but back and forth. Reform, it seems, is less an engine of progress than a pendulum, swinging monotonously between familiar policy alternatives. Progress is hard to come by.

However, a closer reading of the history of educational change in this country reveals a pattern that is both more complex and in a way more troubling than this. Yes, the back-and-forth movement is real, but it turns out that this pattern is for the most part good news. It simply represents a periodic shift in emphasis between two goals for education — democratic equality and social efficiency — that represent competing but equally indispensable visions of education.

The bad news is that in the 20th century, and especially in the past several decades, the pendulum swings increasingly have given way to a steady movement in the direction of a third goal, social mobility. This shift from fluctuation to forward motion may look like progress, but it’s not. The problem is that it represents a fundamental change in the way we think about education, by threatening to transform this most public of institutions from a public good into a private good. The consequences for both school and society, I suggest, are potentially devastating.

Let me explain why. First we’ll consider the role that these three goals have played in American education, and then we can explore the implications of the movement from equality and efficiency to mobility.

The first goal is democratic equality, which is the oldest of the three. From this point of view, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. This goal provided the primary impetus for the common school movement, which established the foundation for universal public education in this country during the middle of the 19th century. The idea was and is that all citizens need to be able to think, understand the world around them, behave sociably, and act according to shared political values — and that public schools are the best places to accomplish these ends. The corollary of this goal is that all these capabilities need to be equally distributed, and that public schools can serve as what Horace Mann called the great “balance wheel,” by providing a common educational competence that helps reduce differences.

Some of the most enduring and familiar characteristics of our current system of education were formed historically in response to this goal. There are the neighborhood elementary school and the comprehensive high school, which draw together students from the whole community under one roof. There is the distinctively American emphasis on general education at all levels of the educational system. There is the long-standing practice of socially promoting students from grade to grade. And there is the strong emphasis on inclusion, which over the years has led to such innovations as racial integration and the mainstreaming of special education students.

The second goal is social efficiency, which first became prominent in the Progressive era at the turn of the century. From this perspective, the purpose of education is not to produce citizens but to train productive workers. The idea is that our society’s health depends on a growing economy, and economy needs workers with skills that will allow them to carry out their occupational roles effectively. Schools, therefore, should place less emphasis on general education and more on the skills needed for particular jobs. And because skill requirements differ greatly from job to job, schools need to tailor curricula to the job and then sort students into the different curricula.

Consider some of the enduring effects that this goal has had on education over the years. There is the presence of explicitly vocational programs of study within the high school and college curriculum. There is the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping. And there is the prominence of social efficiency arguments in the public rhetoric about education, echoing through every millage election and every race for public office in the past half-century. We are all familiar with the argument that pops upon these occasions — that education is the keystone of the community’s economic future, that spending money on education is really an investment in human capital that will pay big dividends.

Notice that the first two goals are in some ways quite different in the effects they have had on schools. One emphasizes a political role for schools while the other stresses an economic role. One pushes for general education, the other for specialized education. One homogenizes, the other differentiates.

But from another angle, the two take a similar approach, because they both treat education as public good. A public good is one that benefits all members of a community, which means that you cannot avoid being affected by it. For example, police protection and road maintenance have an impact directly or indirectly on the life of everyone. Likewise, everyone stands to gain from a public school system that produces competent citizens and productive workers, even those members of the community who don’t have children in public schools.

This leads us to something that is quite distinctive about the third educational goal, the one I call social mobility. From the perspective of this goal, education is not a public good but a private good. If the first goal for education takes the viewpoint of the citizen and the second takes that of the taxpayer, the third takes the viewpoint of the individual educational consumer.

The purpose of education from this angle is not what it can do for democracy or the economy but what it can do for me. Historically, education has paid off handsomely for individuals who stayed in school and came away with diplomas. Educational credentials have made it possible for people to distinguish themselves from their competitors, giving them a big advantage in the race for good jobs and a comfortable life. As a result, education has served as a springboard to upward mobility for the working class and a buttress against downward mobility for the middle class.

Note that if education is going to serve the social-mobility goal effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others don’t get. Education in this sense is a private good that only benefits the owner, an investment in my future, not yours, in my children, not other people’s children. For such an educational system to work effectively, it needs to focus a lot of attention on grading, sorting, and selecting students. It needs to provide a variety of ways for individuals to distinguish themselves from others — such as by placing themselves in a more prestigious college, a higher curriculum track, the top reading group, or the gifted program. In this sense the social-mobility goal reinforces the same sorting and selecting tendency in education that is promoted by the social-efficiency goal, but without the same concern for providing socially useful skills.

Now that I’ve spelled out some of the main characteristics of these three goals for education, let me show how they can help us understand the major swings of the pendulum in educational reform over the last 200 years.

During the common school era in the mid-19th century, the dominant goal for American education democratic equality. The connection between school and work at this point was weak. People earned job skills on the job rather than in school, and educational credentials offered social distinction but not necessarily preference in hiring.

By the end of the 19th century, however, both social efficiency and social mobility emerged as major factors in shaping education, while the influence of democratic equality declined. High school enrollments began to take off in the 1890s, which posed two big problems for education — a social-efficiency problem (how to provide education for the new wave of students), and a social-mobility problem (how to protect the value of high school credentials for middle-class consumers). The result was a series of reforms that defined the Progressive era in American education during the first half of the 20th century. These included such innovations as tracking, ability testing, ability grouping, vocationalism, special education, social promotion, and life adjustment.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s we saw a swing back from social efficiency to democratic equality (reinforced by the social-mobility goal). The national movement for racial equality brought pressure to integrate schools, and these arguments for political equality and individual opportunity led to a variety of related reforms aimed at reducing educational discrimination based on class, gender, and handicapping condition.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum shifted back from democratic equality to social efficiency — again reinforced by social mobility. The emerging movement for educational standards responded both to concerns about declining economic competitiveness (seen as a deficiency of human capital) and to concerns about a glut of high school and college credentials (seen as a threat to social mobility).

However, another way to think about these historical trends in educational reform is to turn attention away from the pendulum swings between the first two goals and to focus instead on the steady growth in the influence of the third goal throughout the last 100 years. Since its emergence as a factor in the late 19th century, social mobility has gradually grown to become the dominant goal in American education. Increasingly, neither of the other two goals can make strong headway except in alliance with the third. Only social mobility, it seems, can afford to go it alone any longer. A prime example is the recent push for educational choice, charters, and vouchers. This is the strongest educational reform movement of the 1990s, and it is grounded entirely within the consumer-is-king perspective of the social-mobility goal.

So, you may ask, what are the implications of all this? I want to mention two problems that arise from the history of conflicting goals in American education — one deriving from the conflict itself and the other from the emerging dominance of social mobility. The second problem is more serious than the first.

On the issue of conflict: Contradictory goals have shaped the basic structure of American schools, and the result is a system that is unable to accomplish any one of these goals very effectively — which has been a common complaint about schools. Also, much of what passes for educational reform may be little more than ritual swings back and forth between alternative goals — another common complaint. But I don’t think this problem is really resolvable in any simple way. Americans seem to want and need an education system that serves political equality and economic productivity and personal opportunity, so we might as well learn how to live with it.

The bigger problem is not conflict over goals but the possible victory of social mobility over the other two. The long-term trend is in the direction of this goal, and the educational reform initiatives in the last decade suggest that this trend is accelerating. At the center of the current talk about education is a series of reforms designed to empower the educational consumer, and if they win out, this would resolve the tension between public and private conceptions of education decisively in the favor of the private view. Such a resolution to the conflict over goals would hurt education in at least two ways.

First, in an educational system where the consumer is king, who will look after the public’s interest in education? As supporters of the two public goals have long pointed out, we all have a stake in the outcomes of public education, since this is the institution that shapes our fellow citizens and fellow workers. In this sense, the true consumers of education are all of the members of the community — and not just the parents of school children. But these parents are the only ones whose interests matter forth school choice movement, and their consumer preferences will dictate the shape of the system.

A second problem is this: In an educational system where the opportunity for individual advancements is the primary focus, it becomes more important to get ahead than to get an education. When the whole point of education is not to ensure that I learn valuable skills but instead to give me a competitive social advantage, then it is only natural for me to focus my ingenuity as a student toward acquiring the most desirable grades, credits, and degrees rather than toward learning the curriculum.

We have already seen this taking place in American education in the past few decades. Increasingly, students have been acting more like smart consumers than eager learners. Their most pointed question to the teacher is “Will this be on the test?” They see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count. If the student is the consumer and the goal is to get ahead rather than to get an education, then it is only rational for students to look for the best deal. And that means getting the highest grades and the most valuable credentials for the lowest investment of effort. As cagey consumers, children in school have come to be like the rest of us when we’re in the shopping mall: They hate to pay full price when they can get the same product on sale.

That’s the bad news from this little excursion into educational history, but don’t forget the good news as well. For 200 years, Americans have seen education as a central pillar of public life. The contradictory structure of American education today has embedded within it an array of social expectations and instructional practices that clearly express these public purposes. There is reason to think that Americans will not be willing to let educational consumerism drive this public-ness out of the public schools.

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