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The Public Schools And The Public Mood

May 2024
20min read

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.

In a historic meeting at Charlottesville, Virginia, last September, President George Bush and the nation’s governors promised to revitalize America’s public schools by establishing “clear national performance goals, goals that will make us internationally competitive.” Their language recalled the document that had inspired school reforms earlier in the 1980s, A Nation at Risk. President Reagan’s first Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, a quiet educator from Utah, had been appointed in 1981 under the cloud of a Reagan promise to abolish the department. Insecure in his cabinet position and never the public figure his successor, William J. Bennett, proved to be, Bell was nonetheless determined to do something about the mounting evidence of poor performance in the nation’s public schools. He appointed a National Commission on Excellence in Education, whose 1983 report resonated deeply with the public mood.


“Our nation is at risk,” the commission warned. “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....We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” This message reverberated through the rest of the Reagan years. It was cited again and again as the nation entered a period of major educational stocktaking, hand wringing, and reform. Within a year several new commissions had echoed its theme. A Twentieth Century Fund task force worried that “by almost every measure—the commitment and competency of teachers, student test scores, truancy and dropout rates, crimes of violence—the performance of our schools falls far short of expectations.” The Education Commission of the States said the schools were “adrift,” and a report by the Carnegie Foundation said that a “deep erosion of confidence in our schools” was coupled with “disturbing evidence that at least some of the skepticism is justified.” Reformers called for higher graduation standards, tougher course content, more homework, better teacher training, and merit pay for teachers. The mass media took up the cry, and television networks ran prime-time documentaries on the school crisis.

Students ranged in age from three to eighteen—all in one room—and teachers struggled to keep order, some by love, most by applying the birch.

This crisis did not come out of the blue. Publicity about declining standardized test scores in the late 1970s strengthened a backlash against open education, open campuses, and easy elective courses—things that people associated with the permissive sixties. Problems like racial segregation and illiteracy had proved difficult to solve, and people were disillusioned with the liberal reforms of a previous generation. Complex and coercive federal and state programs designed to correct discrimination had multiplied in the 1970s, and they taxed the bureaucratic capacity of local schools. Principals’ and teachers’ decisions about where a given child should be at a given moment were beset by contradictory rules about compensatory education, bilingual education, mainstreaming of the handicapped, and desegregation. Many critics and parents became convinced that traditional academic programs were suffering from neglect.

Respect for American public schools declined. In 1974 Gallup pollsters began asking people to grade the public schools. By 1981 the percentage of people who gave the schools an A or a B had declined from 48 percent to 36 percent while the percentage of people who gave the schools an F or a D nearly doubled, from 11 percent to 20 percent. The combination of a disillusioned public and a powerful group of critics had a dramatic effect. Legislatures in many states passed major education-reform bills: graduation requirements were beefed up, teacher salaries were increased, and a flurry of experimental programs were implemented. Although Secretary Bennett left office in 1988 warning that the schools were “still at risk,” and reformers are now busy advocating newer programs for teacher training and for inner-city children, there is no doubt that many states took the first wave of criticism seriously and implemented several of the suggested reforms of the mid-1980s.


This was not the first time in American history that critics aroused an anxious public about the quality and content of public schooling. The schools always have had plenty of critics, but widespread reform has succeeded only when there has been a general crisis of confidence in the schools and reformers have solidified public consensus about what changes are needed. Some efforts to mobilize public opinion have worked; others have not.

The nation was barely born when critics first warned of the terrible condition of schoolhouses and the ignorance of schoolmasters. Schools were “completely despicable, wretched, and contemptible,” said Robert Coram of Delaware in 1791, and the teachers were “shamefully deficient.” Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush suggested school-improvement schemes at the state level, arguing that the fragile Republic could be preserved only by creating an intelligent citizenry. The public was not impressed, and state legislatures refused to pass school-reform bills. People did not think that government intervention in local education was necessary, and they didn’t see an urgent need for improvement. “There is a snail-paced gait for the advance of new ideas on the general mind,” complained Jefferson in 1806. “People generally have more feeling for canals and roads than education.” Thirty years went by before a successful school-reform movement blossomed.

Horace Mann, whose name became synonymous with that movement, grew up when Massachusetts was beginning to industrialize. Born in 1796 to a struggling farm family in Franklin, Massachusetts, he recalled bitterly the endless hours of work and the hellfire-and-brimstone religion of the local Congregationalist minister. When Mann’s brother drowned in a local swimming hole on a Sunday, the minister preached about the eternal damnation of sabbath breakers.

Mann was determined to escape this heartless Puritan religion and the marginal economic position of his family. Under the direction of an eccentric but brilliant itinerant teacher named Barrett, Mann put together a course of study that propelled him into the sophomore class of Brown University. A splendid record there led him to a teaching post at Brown and then to the law school at Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1827 he began his political career as a member of the Massachusetts legislature. By the 1830s Mann was a leading figure in the state senate, supporting economic development through the expansion of railroads, as well as new state institutions like insane asylums and prisons.

School reformers emphasized that moral training was crucial to the republican form of government and to day-to-day behavior as well.

Both Mann’s distaste for orthodox religion and his desire to shape the developing capitalist economy played a role in his educational views. Appointed secretary of the commonwealth’s board of education in 1837, he made public schooling his main focus and led the first successful school-reform movement in American history. When he considered Massachusetts’s tiny rural school districts and its burgeoning mill towns, Mann was alarmed by low enrollment and poor attendance, as well as by the shoddy facilities, the short sessions, and the poor quality of teachers. Like the Nation at Risk panel of the 1980s, Mann argued that failure to educate all children would sabotage American society: “Is it not a fearful thing to contemplate that a portion of our children passed through the last year without the advantages of any school, public or private? What would be said, if we saw a large portion of our fellow citizens treasonably engaged in subverting the foundations of the republic, and bringing in anarchy or despotism?”

Mann had many fellow reformers. In New York a legislative committee complained that public funds for education were “utterly wasted” because “one-third to a half of the pupils were daily absent.” A report on Albany’s schools complained of “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, ignorant, profane and utterly incompetent” teachers. In Vermont the new state superintendent of schools said in 1846 that schoolhouses were in “miserable condition” and that tiny rural districts were “the paradise of ignorant teachers.” All over the country the call for reform was the same. Schoolhouses were poorly built, poorly equipped, and poorly located; teachers were incompetent and lacked supervision; sessions were too short and attendance too irregular.

Memoirs that describe early-nineteenth-century district schools tell about a year divided into two terms: a few months in the winter for all the children and another in summer for those too young to be working. The students ranged in age from three to eighteen, and all studied in the same room, so teachers relied on endless recitations by small groups and struggled to keep order, some by love or persuasion, most by boxing ears and applying birch switches.

The picture of untrained, overburdened teachers struggling to maintain control and teach the three Rs by rote is confirmed in many memoirs of students as well as teachers. As a little boy in winter school in the Catskills, Warren Burton said his ABCs four times a day for his teacher. “This exercise he went through like a great machine, and I like a little one.” Otherwise Burton watched the older children, napped, and fidgeted on the hard bench. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Elizabeth Chace remembered that “at twelve years of age I had recited Murray’s Grammar through perhaps over a dozen times without a word of explanation or application from the book or the teacher.”

These old district schools had their supporters and produced some fond memories. They sufficed to teach rudimentary literacy to a large part of the population in a basically rural nation, they accommodated the seasonal need for child labor, they were inexpensive, and local religious preferences were often observed in prayer and Bible-reading lessons. Although attendance was voluntary, the sketchy figures we have suggest that more than 60 percent of school-age children went to school for some part of a term during the early nineteenth century.

This wasn’t enough for Mann and his fellow school reformers. By the 1840s the district schools seemed clearly inadequate to answer the troublesome problems that industrialization and immigration posed for the nation. Samuel Galloway called schooling in the state of Ohio “the prostrate cause.” Caleb Mills revealed the “humiliating fact” that one-seventh of Indiana’s adults were “not able to read the charter of her liberties.” In the South a report to the Virginia House of Delegates warned, “It would be a fatal delusion to suppose that under the neglect or decay of education, free institutions could preserve a healthful existence.” In North Carolina, the state with the most advanced public school law in the South, reformers complained in the 1850s that some local school committees neglected their duties and others misappropriated school funds.

Everywhere there was resistance to reform from those who opposed increased state involvement, standardization, and higher taxes. In upstate New York an opponent of reform complained that school tax laws authorized some people “to put their hands in their neighbors’ pockets.” A delegate to the Michigan constitutional convention of 1850 warned that if districts were given the power to tax residents for schools, it would endanger passage of the whole revised constitution. In Massachusetts a legislative committee complained that Horace Mann and his board of education were “the commencement of a system of centralization and of monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of our democratical institutions.”

Burton’s teacher made him say his ABCs four times a day. “This exercise he went through like a great machine, and I like a little one.”

Among Mann’s opponents were Congregationalists who saw state regulation of education as a threat to religion in the schools. They joined in an effort to have Mann’s position abolished. Mann referred to this opposition as “an extensive conspiracy” and wrote to a friend that “the orthodox have hunted me this winter as though they were bloodhounds and I a poor rabbit.” In his journal Mann wrote, “I enter another year not without some gloom and apprehension, for political madmen are raising voice and arm against the Board.” To Henry Barnard, his Connecticut counterpart, Mann wrote, “Let us go on and buffet these waves of opposition with a stout arm.”

School reformers promised not only improved intellectual education but improved morals. They emphasized that moral training was crucial to the republican form of government and to work habits and day-to-day behavior as well. They offered to reduce ethnic and class tensions by providing a common meeting ground and a common culture. And despite a long, hard fight, determined opposition, and some setbacks, they won. Devotion to local control of schools gave way by the mid- nineteenth century to anxieties about immigration and economic change and to conflict between Protestants and Catholics. People realized that a higher level of education was needed for the market-oriented economy that industrialization brought with it. A majority of the public in the North had become disillusioned with untrained teachers, short sessions, and makeshift schoolhouses, so they voted for bigger budgets and more state involvement in supervising education.

By 1860 most Northern states had established school funds, state superintendents of instruction, county supervisors, and summer institutes for teachers. Enrollments continued to rise even though schooling did not become mandatory until the late nineteenth century. Small neighborhood school districts were consolidated under townwide school committees, and these committees gradually established longer school sessions and better schoolhouses. The public mood had shifted. The appeal to cultural cohesion and economic progress had succeeded.

There were still dissenters, of course. In the 1870s critics charged that the public schools had not made good on their promises of moral education. Bribery, divorce, crime, disrespect for parents—“this is the condition in which we are after more than half a century of experience of our public-school system,” said Richard Grant White in the North American Review in 1880. He urged the abolition of all public education above the elementary level. A few years later a U.S. Assistant Attorney General named Zachariah Montgomery wrote a book urging the same policy. Public education was a “monstrous usurpation of parental authority” and should be ended, he declared. Montgomery included testimonials from various Protestant clergy to prove that he wasn’t just a champion of Catholic schools, and he argued against the “deep-seated and constantly fomented prejudice in favor of the public-school system, which makes politicians afraid to attack the monster.”

These were conservative voices crying in the wilderness, though. Not until the 1890s did the public mood shift enough to foster another major reform movement. The problems of labor strife, immigration, and economic depression had escalated by then, intensifying concerns about whether the public schools were doing an adequate job of moral education and cultural assimilation. In the judgment of many observers, the schools had become stagnant—lifeless bureaucracies for the educators and stultifying memorization factories for the children.

The person most responsible for spreading this view was Joseph Mayer Rice, a New York pediatrician interested in education. In 1892 Rice received an invitation from Walter Mines Page, editor of the monthly opinion magazine The Forum, to tour thirty-six cities throughout the United States and to inspect their schools. The resulting series of nine articles, beginning in October 1892, caused a sensation. Starting with New York’s schools, Rice lambasted the boredom and passivity of rote learning. “In no single exercise is a child permitted to think. He is told just what to say, and he is drilled not only in what to say, but also in the manner in which he must say it.” One of Rice’s main complaints was the unscientific nature of teaching, a cry that would echo throughout the subsequent reform movement. “The typical New York city primary school,” he said, is a “hard, unsympathetic, mechanical-drudgery school, a school into which the light of science has not yet entered.” In Baltimore, Rice noted, “the schools...are almost entirely in the hands of untrained teachers” and “political influence appears to play a much greater part in their appointment than merit.”

The first district schools sufficed to teach rudimentary literacy to a large part of the population in a rural and diffuse nation.

There were a few bright spots. Teachers in Indianapolis showed great sympathy for children’s interests (another watchword of the developing reform movement), and in Minneapolis Rice found a system free from politics, staffed by well-trained teachers who engaged children in active, creative work. But mostly Rice’s series exposed corruption, mindlessness, and failure. “In nearly every class that I visited,” he wrote of Philadelphia’s schools, though he could have been speaking about the nation’s, “the busywork meant little more than idleness and mischief. It was the most aimless work that I have ever found.”

School officials, of course, reacted defensively to Rice’s findings. One professional journal sneered about the “cheap criticisms and the charlatanism of an alleged expert.” But Rice caught the public mood. A new reform movement developed in the 1890s, and its name—progressive education—linked it with the larger political reform movement of the day. Actions were taken to distance the schools from ward politics in large cities. Smaller school boards hired “captains of education” to run urban school systems according to efficient, scientific principles. New schools of education churned out research on motivation, individual differences, and specialized curricula for different children.

Two goals were at the heart of progressive education: efficiency and individual growth. The tension between these goals went unrecognized by many reform enthusiasts, who patched together new ideas and new programs in a general effort to make schools more relevant to the world of work and more responsive to children’s individual needs. Others recognized the problem but made the kinds of practical compromises necessary in large school systems. In Seattle, for instance, the superintendent Frank Cooper resisted much of the enthusiasm for factory-like efficiency in the schools, but he still believed that testing and grouping were necessary: “The teacher’s greatest problem is to diagnose the individual needs of her pupils and then so to adjust her work that she may be able to give each child the thing that he especially needs.”

Many educators embraced scientific efficiency and the industrial metaphor without qualms. Franklin Bobbitt, an influential education professor at the University of Chicago, argued that education was like industry: “Whether the organization be for commerce or for manufacture, philanthropy or education...the fundamental tasks of management, direction, and supervision are always about the same.” He hoped that the business world “would state in specific terms the kind of educational product that it desires,” just as railroad companies specify what kinds of rails they need from steel plants.

Meanwhile, John Dewey was advocating a very different version of progressive education. A Vermont farm boy trained in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, Dewey had already proved himself a brilliant philosopher and a powerful teacher at the University of Michigan when he became head of both philosophy and education at the new University of Chicago in 1894. In the university’s Laboratory School, Dewey and his associates tried to provide education that balanced the children’s interests with the knowledge of adults, that engaged the children in cooperative, active work, and that integrated social and intellectual learning. The concepts of growth and active learning imbued the curriculum. Children learned about earlier societies through studying people’s productive activities. In 1906, for example, the eight-year-olds of the Laboratory School were studying Phoenician civilization. “The occupational work centered around the trading and maritime activities of the Phoenicians,” wrote one of the teachers, “and then moved on to the larger topic of world exploration and discovery.” Teachers tried to relate all the work the class did to the Phoenician unit. “As each group passed from home room to shop, to laboratory, to studio, to music room, the things they did or expressed, related to or illustrated as far as possible the activities that went on in the historical study they were dramatizing.” This is what Dewey meant by education’s involvement with “occupations.”

Outright occupational training was something altogether different. When David Snedden, a curriculum expert at Columbia’s Teachers College, advocated separate vocational high schools for future factory workers, Dewey debated him in the pages of The New Republic. Dewey objected to the “acquisition of specialized skill in the management of machines at the expense of an industrial intelligence based on science and a knowledge of social problems and conditions.” He wanted the kind of knowledge that would “make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.” Chicago labor unions joined the battle, complaining that dual school systems were designed to put the education of working-class children “under the complete control of corporations,” with the aim of turning out “meek little manikins.” Separate schools for vocational education were defeated in Illinois, as in most other places. Despite the vogue of efficient education for industrial productivity, the most extreme schemes failed because they sounded too undemocratic.

Two very different goals were at the heart of Dewey’s program for progressive education: school efficiency and individual growth.

The “child-centered” school also encountered opposition, not only from Dewey himself, who considered it too permissive, but also from many parents and teachers. When the public schools in Greenwich Village, New York City, began a progressive elementary school in the 1920s, an Italian mother in the parent-teacher association complained: “The program of that school is suited to the children of well-to-do homes, not to our children. We send our children to school for what we cannot give them ourselves, grammar and drill....We do not send our children to school for group activity; they get plenty of that in the street.” Not surprisingly, the New York experiment was soon canceled. Indeed, in the decades that followed, educators adopted efficiency-minded reforms more enthusiastically than child-centered reforms. By the 1950s attempts to combine efficiency and individual development had resulted in an intellectually weak program called Life Adjustment Education. The time was again ripe for school reform, and two conservative strains of criticism—the right-wing anti-Communists of the McCarthy years and the academic traditionalists—emerged to provide it.

The anti-Communists knew more about what they didn’t like (any liberal textbook or leftist teachers’ union) than about what they wanted. In Tenafly, New Jersey, parents identified 131 library books that “follow the Communist line and...are written by Communist sympathizers,” one of a rash of such attacks in the early 1950s. A number of right-wing organizations sprang up to promote and distribute such publications as Progressive Education is REDucation. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the former congressman Charles Swanson was upset by textbooks that listed Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt as great Presidents but not William Howard Taft. These books, he said, “should be thrown on a bonfire—or sent to Russia.”

The time in the limelight of the obsessed anti-Communists was brief. The champions of traditional academic learning, however, became a considerable voice. They assaulted everything they thought progressive education stood for: a low priority for intellectual training, time wasted on trivial social topics, and an endless string of worthless education courses for teachers. (They often confused John Dewey’s original and demanding philosophy with that of his much more permissive and fuzzier disciples.)

A spate of books in the first half of the decade voiced these complaints. The titles tell the story: Quackery in the Public Schools, The Diminished Mind, The Miseducation of American Teachers, Let’s Talk Sense about Our Schools, and The Public School Scandal. The most widely debated book was Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Schools. Bestor, a respected historian of nineteenth-century Utopian communities, taught at the University of Illinois. So did Harold Hand, a professor of education and one of the leading defenders of Life Adjustment Education. The two could hardly have been more different. Bestor was the epitome of the college professor; he was reserved, dressed conservatively, and spent his free time in the library. Hand was an outdoorsman and amateur pilot who wore work boots and open shirts, a self-conscious man of the people, yet highly regarded by his colleagues for his intelligence and judgment. His willingness to depart from traditional subject matter stemmed from his experience as a young boy in school in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, listening to a teacher reading Tennyson’s The Lady of the Lake while outside, through the window, he could see the topsoil blowing away.

It was a classic confrontation. The two advocates were personally gracious toward each other, but their views were irreconcilable. Hand was convinced that Life Adjustment Education was a necessary and democratic response to the ever-increasing number of young people who were going to high school. Bestor would have none of it. He gave himself over wholly to the debate, dropping his scholarly work and mounting a campaign to convince the public that education professors had expelled traditional learning from the schools. Unlike some of the other antiprogressive traditionalists, Bestor did not blame the abandonment of traditional learning on Dewey. In fact, he said that progressive education had been “on the right track” up through the 1920s, when he himself had gone to the Lincoln School, a showcase of progressive education at Columbia’s Teachers College. But then too many educators forgot about Dewey’s efforts to balance the child’s interests with a concern to impart traditional knowledge. Life Adjustment Education emphasized social rather than intellectual learning, especially for students with average or low academic ability. This, fumed Bestor, “declares invalid most of the assumptions that have underlain American democracy.” Like conservatives in the 1980s, Bestor took the high ground on the issue of democracy: All students should have the same highly academic curriculum, in order to make opportunity equal, convey high expectations, and prepare students for intelligent citizenship.

With Sputnik as a catalyst in 1957, American educators launched the schools into a period of frenetic—and ultimately successful—reform.

No doubt Bestor exaggerated the loss of traditional academic subjects in most schools, and he overestimated the power of education professors. Hand argued vociferously that Educational Wastelands was full of “falsehoods and misleading statements” as well as “sleight-of-hand” and “bloopers.” But Bestor found a receptive audience for his complaints, and he got widespread publicity. In the Life Adjustment curriculum, Bestor complained, “trivia are elaborated beyond all reason,” and to prove it, he cited details about helping students develop hobbies and choose a dentist.

Bestor’s biting criticisms, however, got more publicity than his program for reform. He called for the abolition of the undergraduate education major so that all teachers would get a liberal education. He also argued that experts should have more say in curriculum decisions, hoping that this would lead to a restoration of the traditional disciplines in the schools. And of course he wanted higher standards and tougher exams for students.

Whether this conservative program would have resulted in a successful reform movement simply on the strength of its critique of Life Adjustment Education is doubtful. In any case, it had not done so by October 1957, when the launching of the Russian space satellite Sputnik dramatically raised Americans’ anxieties about the Cold War. Many Americans erroneously viewed the satellite as evidence that the Russians had a generally superior school system. Adm. Hyman Rickover wrote that Sputnik proved that the Russian schools caused “all children to stretch their intellectual capacities to the utmost.” President Eisenhower called upon the schools to give up the path “they have been following as a result of John Dewey’s teachings.” And Life ran a series on the hardworking Alexei Kutzkov, who studied difficult math and science in a Moscow high school and did homework most of the time when he wasn’t in a museum. Kutzkov was contrasted with two American children: goofy Steve Lapekas from Chicago, who had fun in school and spent most of his after-school hours fooling around, and Barry Wichmann of Rockwell City, Iowa, the neglected genius with an IQ of 162, whose school had no time, no concern, and no competence to deal with his talents.

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.

At Charlottesville, President Bush said that “the American people are ready for radical reforms.” The next few years will tell how long that mood can be sustained. Meanwhile, school reformers have their work cut out for them.


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