Reformers Could Use a History Lesson

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We are teacher educators who have one eye on schooling in the present and the other on the history of education. We can’t help noticing that while many contemporary reform proposals are presented as radically novel, in fact, they have historical precedents.

For example, supporters of school vouchers rarely acknowledge that Southern legislatures initiated voucher programs to fund white students’ attendance at private schools that were exempt from the Brown v Board of Education integration. Since they ignore that history, proponents are not required to explain similarities or differences between the segregating effects of those vouchers and the ones they support.

Some reformers present corporation leaders’ involvement in educational reform as if it was an entirely new phenomenon. Therefore, they are not pressed to address past instances of business engagement with schools and the concerns that arose about the influence of people whose primary public function was the creation of profit, instead of the development of citizens, on school curriculum. In their attacks on teachers’ unions, they ignore the original justifications for collective bargaining--including unfair dismissals, hiring as political payback, and pay differentials based on gender or race. “Forgetting to remember” that history means they do not have to explain how their efforts to eliminate unions will not recreate the same conditions.

Contemporary promoters of extensive testing seldom reference Franklin K. Bobbit and Edward Thorndike who, in the 1920s and 1930s created assessments that often assigned students to curricular tracks that limited their life chances. So they do not have to tell us why “college and career readiness” measures are not likely to have the same results. They do not acknowledge the historic contributions of urban Catholic schools nor their similarity to the charter schools reformers support. So they are not required to address concerns that better student outcomes in some charters are, like the previous ones of students in Catholic schools, the result of the both schools’ freedom to exclude hard-to-serve students.

They do not recollect earlier fast-track teacher preparation programs. Therefore, they do not have to explain how alike current ones are to the Teacher Corps of the 1970s, whose supporters argued that “the right teachers” were middle and upper middle class educated elites. When discussing school choice, they fail to reference the options created by magnet schools and Essential Schools programs of the 1970s and 1980s. They do not explain why their reforms will succeed when other forms of choice, at least in their opinion, did not.

Current reformers acknowledge no debt to Competency Based Education or the Instructional Theory into Practice model of the 1970s and 1980s respectively, with which they share an emphasis on skills development. Thus, no explanations are demanded about why those strategies did not result in the dramatically improved student outcomes they predict for their own practices.

One historical connection contemporary reformers do make is between their reforms and the African-American civil rights movement. However, in making this link, they do not explain how their lack of attention to the racial isolation in America’s schools connects them to a movement in which ending segregation was a primary goal. Their faith that schools operate as meritocracies even for children living in poverty, is not complicated by historical insights from the 1966 Coleman Report and decades of affirmative action cases. They insist that improved student achievement is solely the responsibility of individual teachers, students and families, regardless of the social conditions in which students are living their lives. In so doing, they ignore the record of education decline in urban districts after the dismantling of Johnson’s Great Society reforms in the early 1980s, documented recently by the Schott Foundation (2011, 2012) and the Education Rights Center at Howard University (2010).

Contemporary reformers’ belief that improved test scores are the only markers of improved teaching and student achievement discounts the research and experiences of educators and school leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and their colleagues Stephen Phillips and Ann Cook in New York City.

David Tyack, an historian of education, argued that “historical maps” provide a way to analyze reformers’ impulses, motives, and strategies, and to consider whether their proposed changes will result in a future that is different from either the past or the present. Contemporary reformers’ failure to acknowledge educational precedents deprives them of that tool. The education history of the United States offers powerful and painful examples and lessons. Ignoring them as we create educational policy and practice is shortsighted and could result in our repeating them.