Back To School Special Part One: A Short History of Education Reform

by on September 6, 2010 · 7 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Education, History, The Chronicles of Edumacation

shcoolThis is part one of a three part series on education reform. People write books about this stuff, mostly aimed at policy wonks and PhD candidates. I wanted to write something that would provide a framework for understanding about what’s going on (or not) in our schools. At the core of this struggle is a serious debate about just what kind of society we as a people are striving to achieve. As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

“Human history is a race between education and catastrophe.” — H.G. Wells

Back in 1635, shortly after the first “free school” in Virginia opened, there is no doubt in my mind that a “reform-minded” group came together for the purpose of critiquing whatever program of study that was being offered. For as long as there have been schools, there have been people out there willing to argue over what was the best approach to take.

Aristotle and Plato (as a mouthpiece for Socrates) offered up differing versions of the ideal education and nation/state, and similar arguments continue into modern times. While both believed that knowledge was the path to virtue, they differed in many ways as to the means in which learning should be imparted and what purpose it served.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) put forth the proposition that the human mind starts out as a blank slate at birth and knowledge is derived through experience. The prevailing view at the time was that humans were born with innate ideas; back in that era those ideas were largely defined by religious officials. (Variations of this debate continue today, tempered by time and research.)

In 1743 Benjamin Franklin formed the American Philosophical Society, which sought to bring ideas of the “European enlightenment”, including those of John Locke, to colonial America. Emphasizing secularism, science, and human reason, these ideas clashed with the religious dogma of the day, but greatly influenced the thinking of prominent colonists, including Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The notion of publicly funded education began to gain traction in the early 19th century as the industrial revolution began the process of transforming economies in the western world. Early educators were heavily influenced by the Prussian education system, which advocated compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (used to classify children for potential job training), national curriculum set for each grade. Beyond these standards, the Prussian system was also an early attempt at social engineering, with the stated goal of creating citizens convinced, in the core of their beings, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount.

In 1843, Horace Mann traveled to Germany to investigate how their educational process worked. Upon his return to the United States, he lobbied heavily to have the “Prussian model” adopted. Mann convinced the Whig Party to legislate tax-supported elementary public education in their states. Many northern states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the plan for “normal schools” to train qualified teachers.

RockefellerBy the turn of the century, public education had become universal, at least for white males, in all but the States formerly known as the Confederacy. Along came John D. Rockefeller, who along with a few of his tycoon friends, set out to right what was wrong with public education in the United States. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller alone spent more money on education than the government did between 1900 and 1920.

Aside from providing funding aimed at correcting the obvious inequities between North and South (and whites and blacks), the mere existence of the General Education Board (which was the funding vehicle) has spawned enough conspiracy theories to keep theorists busy for a century. (And it has) Googling of any combination of the words “Rockefeller” and “education” will quickly lead you down the rabbit hole of the conspiracist’s milieu that includes lunatic Christians, libertarians, neo-leftists and Larouchies. Following are among the mildest of the claims that were made about the Rockefeller/Carnegie grants in the education field.

A 1913 Congressional commission to investigate the role of the foundations of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and of other corporate families reported:

The domination of men in whose hands the final control of a large part of American industry rests is not limited to their employees, but is being rapidly extended to control the education and social services of the nation.

Forty years later, another Congressional committee looked at the impact of these same foundations and concluded:

The impact of foundation money upon education has been very heavy, tending to promote uniformity in approach and method, tending to induce the educator to become an agent for social change and a propagandist for the development of our society in the direction of some form of collectivism.

From the loins of this foundation largess came John Dewey’s Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916). Dewey’s writings advanced the notion of a “progressive education movement”, which sought to make schools more effective agents of democracy.

While the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 ended with a ruling favoring the teaching of creationism in public schools, the traditionalists ultimately came out on the losing side of things. The debates that arose from this court case, along with a change in public attitudes towards science and technology, set the stage for a new era of reforms in public education.

The progressives promoted the idea that students should be encouraged to be independent thinkers, creative beings, and expressive about their feelings. This was a sharp contrast from the prevailing educational approaches rooted in social efficiency in that era, particularly in the United States. These traditional approaches emphasized classroom control, management, obedience to authority and a structured curriculum that focused on memorization and rote skills. And traditional educators were appalled by Dewey’s premise that everyday assumptions needed to be challenged as part of a continual search for absolute truth.

This progressive philosophy peaked in the 1930’s, after a consortium including the American Legion, the Advertising Federation of America, the National Association of Manufacturers and the New York State Economic Council launched a campaign to ban “Man and His Changing World,” a popular social science textbook written by Columbia’s Harold Rugg. Some school boards were inspired to stage public burnings of this textbook because it dared to advocate liberal ideas like racial understanding, social justice and Keynesian economics.

As the Cold War ratcheted up, so did the attacks on progressive education. Allen A. Zoll, of the National Council for American Education published pamphlets with titles like “Progressive Education Increases Juvenile Delinquency” and “The Commies Are After Your Kids” as part of a campaign to prove that “90% of texts and teaching in our schools today are in considerable measure subversive [to] basic American principles.”

So it was back to a modified version of the Prussian model for educators in the 1950’s, along with nuclear air raid drills and rote memorization. Then the Russians launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Sputnik made it clear to the American public that it was in the national interest to change education, in particular the curriculum in mathematics and science. Although the public had previously opposed federal aid to schools (on the grounds that aid would lead to federal control), after Sputnik the demand for a federal response was such that Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

The Supreme Court ruling in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) against “separate but equal” schooling may have changed the law of the land, but did little to halt the practice of segregation. It did set in motion political actions at the State and local level; private academies blossomed throughout the South as white-only groups united behind the “massive resistance” or “freedom of choice” movements.

Civil rights groups also rallied after the Brown decision, engaging in protests and civil court actions leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation that ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. Much of the education reform during this era focused on removing the inequities that that existed in school systems nationwide.

back-to-schoolWhile progressive forces may have triumphed during this era, the battles over school boards and educational policies were just getting warmed up. After the Civil War, Southern physicians wrote textbooks of scientific racism based upon studies claiming that Black freemen (ex-slaves) were becoming extinct, because they were inadequate to the demands of being a free man — implying that Black people benefited from enslavement. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the rationale for racism morphed into the argument that the Federal government was imposing on the rights of the States. The reactionaries were determined that local Boards of Education would be a key future battleground for their efforts to roll back the social clock.

The forces of school reform were also buffeted by the civil rights, social and political movements of the era in a quest to seemingly redefine just about every aspect of society, including education. A radical educational critique blossomed in the wake of rebellions on college campuses and the civil rights movement. Students and young educators began to explore the relevance of “freedom” and “democracy” to education; they discovered A.S. Neill’s fiery manifesto of educational liberation, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing, as well as the writings of John Holt, Paul Goodman, George Dennison, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl and others. The dissidents fled the public school system and established as many as 1000 “free schools” across the U.S.

The OB Community School was founded in 1971 as a non-profit corporation run by a collective that tried to make decisions on a consensual basis. The school operated in an older, one-story house on Voltaire Street. Dennis Doyle (who went on to become Superintendent of the National City School System), Tom Kozden, David Diehl and Linda Taggart were some of the original members of the collective and nominal “teachers.” In a 1972 OB Rag article, the collective published this statement:

The sun is rising again as O.B. Community School begins our second year of alternative community education. We are not the ordinary school. We are a place where learning takes place. Learning how to live in harmony with life. Not how to control or be controlled. That is our theory, that is our structure, that is our life.

We are an alternative to the public school. Our students are not students, our teachers are not teachers. We are all friends and we depend on that relationship for all our mutual learning. We talk with each other about our desires, our problems and our adventures. We learn about ourselves and life by being together and sharing.

We do things. We garden, we build structures, we travel, we become a part of our community. You have probably seen us before.. We have been to city council sessions, to the libraries and bookstores, we have picnics at the ocean and the parks. We get involved in our community and learn first hand.

We are a small school – and more important, we are a happy school. We like to make new friends. Soon we will be starting a new school year. If you are interested in becoming a part of a significant, for real learning situation, come over and talk with us.

Over the next few years most of the free schools imploded or disappeared, along with the counter-culture that nurtured them. Many of the ideas and the sense that schools needed to be part of the community continue to be influential today.

testtotestThe election of Ronald Regan as President of the United States in 1980 signaled that a shift was occurring in the political environment, one driven by a nostalgic urge for an era with less turmoil than the previous decades. Conservatives began drawing on plans to institutionalize their ascendancy, and foremost among their concerns was education. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a report entitled A Nation At Risk, that concluded:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.

The mantra that “education has failed” began with that report, and it remains a central tenet of conservative critiques nearly three decades years later.

The approach to reform over the past few decades includes an emphasis on “cultural literacy”–the facts, phrases, and texts that conservatives assert every American once knew. At every juncture in the debate cycle where conservative interests have been ascendant, notions of standardization have been touted in recent decades as the elixir to the problems confronting schools. The current trend in school reform, led largely by business leaders, helps to establish a respective identity of “consumers” for students and “managers” for educators.

bill-gates-borgThe principle of running schools like businesses has revived. Calls for reform are filled with such words and concepts as “accountability,” “measurement,” “standards based,” “outputs,” “public school choice,” “teacher merit pay,” “vouchers,” “school competition,” etc. The imagery evoked by these terms is apparent: schools can and should operate like factories. Students should enter schools as basic raw materials, receiving specific quantities of state-sanctioned `inputs’ at specific times along the school K-12 assembly-line, managed by quality control measures (via tests), and emerge ready to begin twenty-first century jobs.

These talking points made it into federal policy when the No Child Left Behind Act became one of the first legislative initiatives of the Bush II administration in 2001. Based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education, the Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

The NCLB had its fair share of critics. A principal criticism asserted that the Act reduced effective education and student learning because it caused states to lower achievement goals and motivated teachers to “teach to the test.” Education advocate Alfie Kohn argued that the NCLB’s “main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills”.

The Obama administration responded to critics of the Bush reforms by announcing a program called Race To The Top. Critics of this latest stab at reform claim that the “Race to the Top” will fail for the same reason “No Child Left Behind” failed—because it’s based on false assumptions about the reliability of standardized tests, and ignores the failure of past experiments (such as those conducted in eastern Europe under Communism) showing that top-down reforms are ineffective.

The real sponsors behind the reforms at the heart of RTTT are the private foundations of America’s newest crop of tycoons, also known as The Billionaires Boys Club”. The Gates Foundation (Microsoft), the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), and The Broad Foundation (SunAmerica) are committed to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And now that’s the policy of the US Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

As happened with the Rockefeller reforms a century ago, the most effective critic of those schemes has emerged from the heart of their movement. Diane Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education during the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Under President Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing. Her involvement with two prominent conservative think tanks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Koret Task Force placed Ravitch at the forefront of advocates for the kinds of reforms dear to the heart of right wingers everywhere. Now she calls those reforms she once championed “deforms”.

dianeravitchbookPublication of Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, sent shockwaves throughout education circles in the United States. The book documents her turnaround on these issues and the impact of current education policy on communities, schools, families, teachers, and students.

In an interview published online at Slate, she talked about her change of heart and her relationship with the foundations, saying,

“Another part was realizing how much money was arrayed against something as simple as public education. There’s this notion that because these people are so wealthy, they can make decisions that change other people’s lives, without thinking of those lives. It’s kind of an anti-human approach that says, I’m rich, I’m smart, and you’re just an ordinary person, therefore I have power over you. And I guess I have a kind of bedrock populism in me that just rejects that.”

As it turns out, San Diego is ground zero for the current debate over the future of public education. In the next few days, I’ll post part two of this series, discussing the programs that are at the heart of the latest so-called reforms, entitled Testing, Testing, Can You Hear Me Now? Part Three will talk about San Diego as Ground Zero in the current debate. (And for those of you smitten with the notion that teachers unions are the root of all evil, don’t worry, we’ll be talking about that, also.)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

RB September 6, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Thank you for the review but you might want to include a mention of an important local school story that had national implications prior to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
I don’t know how many people know of the Lemon Grove incident?


doug porter September 6, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Thanks for the contribution. For those of you reading this, DO follow the link. It gives some fascinating insight into some California history. I also know that kids of Mexican descent were required to be “deloused” by various school districts in the Los Angeles area…. ugh. Racism is so ugly.


Patty Jones September 6, 2010 at 2:11 pm

RB, thanks for the link. Very informative!


Thomas Retterbush, Investigator September 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm

That’s some scary, humiliating, scandalous history! And though Americans must be taught the truth, as a teacher I would not look forward to teaching this shameful history to my students.


RB September 24, 2010 at 10:21 am

Thomas: As far as the distasteful Lemon Grove History, I was able to present this history successfully to 5-6th grade level Boys Scouts as part of a citizenship requirement using a documentary film ( I seem to remember it was a PBS production.). To keep the topic relevant and positive, you need to challenge the student with ‘what would you do type questions’ and a review of legal rights. I see this as the glass was half full ..individuals were able to stop the injustice without violence using the courts and Constitution.


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