This is an updated and abbreviated version of the lecture I posted on December 2. It makes for an easier read, plus I’ve added a piece at the end trying to answer the question: Why do we keep trying to reform schools?
Here’s the new conclusion about the endless efforts to reform schools:
This still leaves open the question of why reforming American schools has proven to be such steady work over the years. The answer is that we reform schools in an effort to solve pressing social problems. And we have to keep coming up with new reform movements because schools keep failing to fix the problems we ask them to fix. The issue is that we keep asking schools to do things they are incapable of doing.
For example, schools can’t eliminate or even reduce social inequality, racial divisions, or poor health. These are social problems that require major political interventions to transform the social structure, which we are unwilling to undertake because they will provoke too much political opposition. If we wanted, we could redistribute wealth and income and establish a universal public health system, but we don’t. So we dump the problems on schools and then blame them for failing to solve these problems.
In addition, schooling is such a large and complex social institution that efforts to change it are more likely to introduce new problems than to solve old ones. In U.S. history, the common school movement was the only truly successful reform, which created the social and cultural basis for the American republic. The others caused problems. Progressivism created a differentiated and vocationalized form of schooling that required the standards and choice movements to reintroduce commonality and choice. Desegregation spurred whites to abandon urban schools, which are now as segregated as they ever were. So we continue to tinker with schools in order to fix problems for which we lack the political will to fix ourselves. And the work of school reformers is unlikely to ever reach an end.