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The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
With Sputnik as the catalyst, Americans launched into a period of frenetic educational reform, led by James Conant and Jerome Bruner. Conant, a former Harvard president and a prestigious spokesman for public education, had an answer to the dual demands of democracy and the Cold War: large comprehensive high schools that grouped students primarily according to ability. Bruner, the premier psychologist of education in the country, gathered some university experts and a smattering of school people at Woods Hole on Cape Cod to talk about the structure of the disciplines and then wrote a landmark book, The Process of Education, which inspired new curricula in mathematics and science. The federal government joined the reform movement with a major new initiative, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which bolstered math, science, and foreign-language training at every level. Again, a successful educational-reform movement had resulted when political and social anxieties coincided with a public perception that the schools were not in tune with the needs of the society.
The curriculum reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s had a special focus on math, science, and talented children. By the mid-1960s these concerns had been overtaken by another shift in the public mood. The civil rights movement, dramatized by the grassroots efforts of blacks and encouraged by the Johnson administration, resulted in a major effort to address poverty and racial prejudice through government action. Education was assigned a key role in this effort, just as it had been assigned a key role in solving the national problems brought about by industrialization in the 1840s, immigration and urbanization in the early 1900s, and the Cold War in the 1950s.
Reforms have limited effects compared with their goals, but they do force teachers to think about the enterprise they are engaged in.
The momentum lasted until the early 1970s. Gaps between the basic skills of minority and majority students narrowed among younger students; a revolution in school integration occurred, particularly in the South; schools recognized and institutionalized the rights of women, the disabled, and non-English-speaking students. But by the mid-1970s the public’s tolerance for the disruptions of new programs and regulations was exhausted. Even before Reagan’s electoral victory, education officials in the Carter administration were winding down massive student-aid programs, going more slowly on rights enforcement, and reducing the tangle of regulations and reporting required of local districts. A grassroots back-to-basics movement, declining college-entrance-exam scores, economic recession, and foreign competition set the stage for Terrel Bell and his Commission on Excellence in Education. The pendulum had swung again.
Major reforms of public education seem to come in cycles. Some people characterize the swings as conservative or liberal. The progressive decades of 1895 to 1915 and the 1965–75 reform movement are “liberal,” meaning that they emphasized equal access to education and recognition of student diversity; the 1950s and the 1980s are “conservative” because they place an emphasis on the nurturing of standards, talent, and traditional academic knowledge. Swings of reform might also be seen as alternating between periods of centralization and professionalization (as in the 1840s, the progressive era, and the 1960s), and periods of reasserted localism, private initiative, and challenges to the education establishment (as in the 1950s and the 1980s).
The cycles of public-school reform in our history have had limited effects compared with their goals. They did not achieve full equality of opportunity, harmonious social relations, effective character education, universal literacy, and satisfactory levels of academic excellence. The links between policy makers and teachers in the classroom have always been weak, and schools are rather inert institutions. They have limited resources of time and money to devote to change. Perhaps it is a good thing that schools don’t swing radically from one reform agenda to another, but it is frustrating to reformers—both “conservative” and “liberal”—when they try to assess the impact of their heartfelt efforts.
Nonetheless, even if school reforms have limited effects and run in somewhat predictable pendulum swings, they serve two very useful purposes. They force educators to think about what they are doing to defend it, to fine-tune it, and to think about the whole enterprise they are engaged in, not just their specific daily roles. More important, school reforms encourage the public to think about public education—not just about its failings but about its purpose and its importance. To the extent that schools respond successfully to widespread reform sentiment, they give people a sense of having a stake and a voice in the conduct of public schools.
The metaphor of the pendulum is probably too tame for the intense difficulties our public schools will face in the 1990s as reformers try to fashion a movement that addresses the unfinished agenda: dropouts, the problems of low-income and single-parent families, the restructuring of teacher training and teachers’ working conditions, the debate over common learning for a highly diverse population, the consolidation of equal rights that have been promised but imperfectly granted, drugs, and, most important, more effective instruction, both in basic skills and in problem solving.