Posted in Course Syllabus, History, History of School Reform Class, School reform

Class on History of School Reform in the U.S.

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of School Reform in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to download it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share this with anyone you like.

All of the course materials are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, this includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

What are the central themes of this class? 

One is that reform of schooling is all about trying to improve it.  But whether a particular reform constitutes an improvement or a detriment to school and society rests in the eye of the beholder.  It all depends on what goals you want schools to accomplish, but the fact is that we don’t fully agree on what those goals are.  So reform is not a linear process leading inevitably toward a better future but a cyclical process resulting from efforts to accomplish alternative goals that are in tension with each other.  This produces a series on long-term pendulum swings between alternative visions of education.

A second theme is that examining the history of reform efforts can provide us with rich insight into the nature of the educational system.  Think of reforms as a series of experiments in school improvement.  How the system reacts to each of these experimental interventions tells us something important about how the system operates. 

One conclusion I have drawn from examining this process is that reformers have been overconfident about their understanding of what the problems with schooling are and therefore what solutions are required.  The fact is that a lot of reform efforts make schools worse.  By failing to understand the complexity of the system and the way it has evolved over time, reformers have frequently been throwing a monkey wrench into the works.  They try to solve one problem and in the process create another.  (This is one reason by Dick Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin call school reform “steady work.”) 

So one message the course sends to students is to show a little humility in your efforts to improve schools.  Learn more about how the system works before tinkering with it.  And consider the possibility that you might make things worse.

I hope you find this useful.

History of School Reform in the US

A Ten-Week Class

David Labaree


Twitter: @Dlabaree


Course Description

In this course, we will explore the history of school reform in the United States.  In only 10 weeks we will not be able to pursue a systematic study of this history from beginning to end, so instead we will explore a few of the major issues in this history and examine some pertinent cases of school reform to consider their consequences.  School reform is the intended change of schooling toward accomplishment of a valued goal.  One problem with reform, therefore, is intent.  Education is an extraordinarily complex social institution – involving a vast array of people, structures, and organizations – which means that reforming education in ways that make it produce the intended results is quite difficult.  Frequently reforms unintentionally generate new problems, which then require a new wave of reform to deal with them.  (This is why Elmore and McLaughlin call school reform “steady work.”)  A second problem with reform is that reasonable people can disagree over the goals of schooling, which means that what is a positive reform for some people may be a negative change for others.  The result is that your reaction to the success or failure of a reform effort depends on where you stand on its value, since the failure of a bad reform is a good thing.

Major Issues in the History of School Reform:  Framing our look at the history of reform will be two core books:  Tinkering Toward Utopia, which David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote in response to what they learned from teaching this class at Stanford for a number of years; and Someone Has to Fail, the book I wrote after teaching the same course for a decade.  We’ll read their book at the start of the class and read mine in pieces across the quarter.  A key theme in Tyack and Cuban is the paradox of school reform, in which it seems that schools are constantly being bounced around by a stream of reform efforts while at the same time they never seem to change.  They unravel this paradox by separating the history of reform into two interacting elements:  the noisy and often contradictory rounds of reform rhetoric that intrude upon schools at irregular intervals, and the slower and steadier process of evolutionary change in the structure of schooling that takes place largely outside of public view.  We will look at both aspects of reform, with special attention to assessing the outcomes of reform in the realm of the structure and practice of schooling itself.  My own book takes a more jaundiced view of reform, examining why the common school movement was such a success and later reforms were such failures.  In the early part of the book, the focus is on how the loosely coupled organization of schooling and the peculiar characteristics of teaching as a practice have put severe limits on the possibilities of reform.  In the latter part, I explore why the failure of reform is largely good news, protecting the system from damaging experiments based on misguided visions of what schools can do to solve social problems.  I argue that schools are a terrible way to solve most of the social problems that they are asked to address.  I also suggest that schools are doing what educational consumers want from them – providing us with social access and social advantage – even if they don’t do what reformers ask of them.

The class starts with the work of David Cohen, Richard Elmore, and Milbrey McLaughlin, who consider the organizational and pedagogical reasons it has been so difficult to change the basic grammar of schooling through deliberate reform efforts.  Next we read Tyack and Cuban to get an overview of the subject.  Then we look at my representation of the two most important reform movements in the history of American schools, one promoting the common school and the other pushing for progressive education.  Next we look at the rhetorics of school reform by examining a series of reform documents from the last 200 years.  We will then look in detail at the nature and variety of school reform rhetoric, through a close study of a few key reform texts over the years, including pedagogical progressivism, administrative progressivism, desegregation, the standards movement, and school choice.  In succeeding weeks, we explore the core factors that make the school system so resistant to reform and consider some of the kinds of reform practices that are more likely to bring about results.  Then we examine the system’s core social role, showing how the system continually adapts to pressure for greater social access by stratifying instruction in a way the preserves social advantage.  In week 8 we look at issues surrounding race and American schooling.  In week 9, we put the issue of school reform in the larger context of state-driven social change efforts, by focusing on James Scott’s framework, which examines why it has been so hard over the years for governments to impose order on complex social institutions such as schooling.  For the last class, we read the final chapters in my book, talk about what schools can do, and what they can’t do.

What This Class Is and Is Not About:  This class is intended to encourage you to think hard about the things that make educational reform so complex, contradictory, difficult, and often dysfunctional.  Its focus is on analyzing what happens to reform efforts between initial proposals and eventual outcomes.  This means that its aim is not to provide you with a how-to manual that will enable you to be a successful reformer.  I don’t think such a manual exists, and the dream of finding the one right way to fix things has done a lot of damage to schools over the years.  Instead, think of this class as an exercise in realism, a set of cautionary tales that I hope will help you locate your own efforts to improve schools within a useful historical framework.  The idea is to encourage students to develop a rich understanding of the American system of schooling – even a grudging respect for it – before trying to institute reforms, and to instill a little humility into people’s plans for saving the world with better schools.


This class was originally designed for master’s and doctoral students in education, but it has also works for graduate or undergraduate students in any field who are interested in learning about the nature of the American system of education.


Books:  The following books are used in the course; both are in print.  Also, pirated digital versions of both books can be found online.

Tyack, David & Cuban, Larry. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: Reflections on a century of public school reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

            Assigned Articles and Other Readings:  All other readings are available in PDF on the course Google Drive.

 Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.  For each week, I provide:  a link to tips for how to approach each week’s readings; links for access to the PDFs of these readings; a link to the class slides for that week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988).  Steady work.  Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan.

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Introduction.

Class slides for week 1:  slides 1a, slides 1b, slides 1c

 Week 2

The History of Educational Reform:  An Overview

Tips for week 2 readings

Tyack, David & Cuban, Larry. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: Reflections on a century of public school reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

The Two Major Reform Movements – Common School and Progressivism; Schooling and the Meritocracy

Tips for week 3 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 1, 2, and 3.

McClay, William M. (2016). A distant elite: How meritocracy went wrong. The Hedgehog Review 18:2 (Summer).

Class slides for week 3

Week 4

Factors That Make Reform Difficult

Tips for week 4 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 4 and 5

Meyer, John W. & Rowan, Brian. (1983). The structure of educational organizations. In Organizational environments: Ritual and rationality (pp. 71-97), edited by John W. Meyer and William R. Scott. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Cuban, Larry. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice? In Inside the black box of classroom practice: Change without reform in American education (pp. 155-187). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Check out Larry Cuban’s blog on school reform and classroom practice, always a good read:

Class slides for week 4

 Week 5

The Rhetorics of Reform:  Cases in Point

Read any four of these closely; lightly skim the rest.

Tips for week 5 readings

Common School Movement

Mann, Horace. (1848). Twelfth Annual Report to the State Board of Education of Massachusetts.  Selections.

Committee of 10

Committee of 10. (1893). Report to the National Council of Education.  Selections.

Pedagogical Progressivism

Dewey, John. (1902/1990). The child and the curriculum. In Philip W. Jackson (ed.), The school and society and the child and the curriculum (pp. 181-209). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Administrative Progressivism

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Standards Movement 1.0

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

School Choice

Walberg, Herbert J. & Best, Joseph L. (2003). Failure of the public school monopoly. In Education and capitalism: How overcoming our fear of markets and economics can improve America’s schools (pp. 3-32). Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.

Standards Movement 2.0

No Child Left Behind Act.  (2002).  Public Law 107-110.  Title I.

School Choice 2.0

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Making Educational Change

Tips for week 6 readings

Fullan, Michael G. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 2.

Fullan, Michael G. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 5.

Wolf, Shelby A., Borko, Hilda, Elliott, Rebekah L., & McIver, Monette C. (2000). “That dog won’t hunt!:” Exemplary school change efforts within the Kentucky reform. American Educational Research Journal, 37:2, 349-393.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995).  The silenced dialogue.  In Other people’s children (pp. 21-47).  New York: New Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

Balancing Social Access and Social Advantage

Tips for week 7 readings

Labaree, David F.  (2013).  Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114).  Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Cohen, David. K., & Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). The failure of high schools and the progress of education. Daedelus, 110 (Summer), 69-89.

Labaree, David F.  (1997).  The middle class and the high school.  In How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (pp. 92-109).  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria.  (1995).  But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Theory into Practice, 34:3, pp. 159-165.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Race and American Schooling

Tips for week 8 readings

Nieto, Sonia (1994).  Affirmation, solidarity, and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in multicultural education.  Multicultural Education, 1:4, pp. 9-12, 35-38.

Fine, Michelle. (1986). Why urban adolescents drop into and out of public high school. The Teachers College Record, 87(3), 393-409.

McWhorter, John. (2018). There’s nothing wrong with Black English. The Atlantic.

Recommended:  The Problem We All Live With.  (2015). This American Life Podcast (July 31).  Available in audio (below) and in transcript

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

Problems in Making Systematic Reform of Education

Tips for week 9 readings

Scott, James. (1999).  Seeing like a state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Pay close attention to Introduction, chapters 1-2 and 9-10.  Skim through the rest looking for examples.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10


Tips for week 10 readings

Labaree.  Someone has to fail.  Chapters 6, 7, and 8.

Cohen, David K. (1990). A revolution in one classroom: The case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12:3, pp. 311-329.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

As a critical reader of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

If this is the way critical readers are going to approach a text, then as an analytical writer you need to guide readers toward the desired answers to each of these questions.

 Guidelines for Analytical Writing

 In writing papers for any course, keep in mind the following points.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
  2. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
  3. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
  4. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
  5. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
  6. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
  7. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems.  It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
  8. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
  9. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
  10. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
  11. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.
Posted in Education policy, History of education, School organization, School reform

Michael Katz — Alternative Forms of School Governance

This post is my reflection on a classic piece by my former advisor, Michael Katz.  It’s a chapter in Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools called “Alternative Proposals for American Education: The Nineteenth Century.”  Here’s a link to a PDF of the chapter.

Katz CBS

The core argument is this.  In American politics of education in the 19th century, there were four competing models of how schools could be organized and governed.  Katz calls them paternalistic voluntarism, democratic localism, corporate voluntarism, and incipient bureaucracy.  By the end of the century, the bureaucratic model won out and ever since it has constituted the way public school systems operate.  But at the time, this outcome was by no means obvious to the participants in the debate.

At one level, this analysis provides an important lesson in the role of contingency in the process of institutional development.  Historical outcomes are never predetermined.  Instead they’re the result of complex social interactions in which contingency plays a major role.  That is, a particular outcome depends on the interplay of multiple contingent factors.

At another level, his analysis unpacks the particular social values and educational visions that are embedded within each of these organizational forms for schooling.

In addition, the models Katz shows here never really went away.  Bureaucracy became the norm for school organization, but the other forms persisted, in public school systems, in other forms of modern schooling, and in educational policies.

This is a piece I often used in class, and I’m drawing on class slides in the discussion that follows.

First, consider the characteristics of each model:

  • Paternalistic voluntarism
    • Pauper school associations as the model (which preceded public schools)
    • This is a top-down organization: we educate you
    • Elite amateurs ran the organization
  • Democratic localism
    • The small- town district school as the model
    • Purely public in control and funding, governed by an elected board of lay people: we educate ourselves
    • Anti-professional, anti-intellectual, reflecting local values
  • Corporate voluntarism
    • Private colleges and academies as the model
    • Independent, local, adaptable; on the border between public and private
    • Funded by student tuition and donations
    • Flexible, anti-democratic
    • Owned and operated by an elite board of directors
  • Incipient bureaucracy
    • An interesting composite of the others
    • As with PV, it’s a top down model with elite administration
    • As with CV, it provides some autonomy from democratic control
    • But as with DL, it answers to an elected board, which exerts formal control

Questions to consider:

    • How have paternalistic voluntarism, corporate voluntarism, and democratic localism persisted in modern schooling?
    • What difference does this make in how we think about schools?

Consider how all of these forms have persisted in the present day:

  • Paternalistic voluntarism
    • Means tests for educational benefits (Chapter I)
    • School reformer’s emphasis on the education of Other People’s Children (e.g., no excuses charter schools)
    • Teach For America
  • Corporate voluntarism
    • Private colleges and private schools continue this model
  • Democratic localism
    • Decentralized control of schools at the district level — 15,000 schools districts that hire teachers, build schools, and operate the system
    • Elected local school boards
  • Incipient bureaucracy
    • Still the most visible element of the current structure of schooling

Katz sees democratic localism as the good guy, bureaucracy as the bad guy

  • Is this true?  Consider the downsides of democratic localism
    • Parochialism, racism, restricted opportunity, weak academics
    • Desegregation of schools relied on federal power to override the preferences of local school boards
  • Katz is critical of ed bureaucracy from the left, a reflection of when he published the book (1971)
  • But the right has more recently developed a critique of ed bureaucracy, which is behind the choice movement: free schools from the government school monopoly;

Question: What is your take on the role that the educational bureaucracy plays in schooling?

My own take is this:

  • Bureaucracy is how we promote fairness in education
    • Setting universal procedures for everyone
  • Bureaucracy is how we promote democratic control over a complex educational institution
    • Setting a common set of standards transmitted by the elected board
  • Bureaucracy is how we protect schools from pure market pressures (see Philip Cusick’s book, The Educational System)
    • As consumers try to manipulate the system for private ends
    • It’s how we protect teachers from the unreasonable demands of parents
  • Thus bureaucracy serves as a bastardized bastion of the public good
  • Consider the modern school system – elected board and bureaucratic administration – as an expression of liberal democracy, with the democratic and liberal elements constraining each other
    • B expresses democratic will and enforces it, restricting individual choice
    • B provides due process for adjudicating individual choice, protecting it from tyranny of majority

Next week I will be publishing a new piece of my own, which picks up this last part of the analysis.  It’s called, “Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy.”  Stay tuned.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Social Programs

What Schools Can’t Do: Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

This post is the text of a lecture I gave in 2009 at the University of Berne.  It was originally published in the Swiss journal Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie and then found its way into my 2010 book, Someone Has to Fail.  Here is the link to the first published version.

It’s about a longstanding problem in American educational policy:  We ask schools to pursue goals that are beyond their capabilities.  Schools are simply not very good at a lot of things we ask them to do.  They can’t promote equality, they can’t end poverty, they can’t create good jobs, they can’t drive economic growth, they can’t promote public health.  Yet we expect them to do all this heavy lifting for us.

Part of the story is about why schools aren’t good at these things.  Another is why we keep giving them such assignments anyway.  The answer to the second, I suggest, is that we pass off on schools social problems that we are unwilling to accomplish through the political process, where the capability for success actually resides.  Instead of addressing these problems directly through political action, we foist them off on schools and then blame them for continually falling short of the desired goal.  Herein lies the reason why school reform has been such steady work.  Read and weep.


What Schools Can’t Do:

Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

Americans have a long history of pinning their hopes on education as the way to realize compelling social ideals and solve challenging social problems.  We want schools to promote civic virtue, economic productivity, and social mobility; to alleviate inequalities in race, class, and gender; to improve health, reduce crime, and protect the environment.  So we assign these social missions to schools, and educators gamely accept responsibility for carrying them out.  When the school system inevitably falls far short of these goals, we initiate a wave of school reform to realign the institution with its social goals and ramp up its effectiveness in attaining them.  The result, as one pair of scholars has put it, is that educational reform in the U.S. is “steady work.”  In this lecture, I want to tell a story:  What history tells us about what schools cannot do.

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  On the one hand, American schooling has been an extraordinary success.  It started as a small and peripheral enterprise in the 18th century and grew into a massive institution at the center of American society in the 21st, where it draws the lion’s share of the state budget and a quarter of the lives of citizens.  Central to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet, in spite of continually recurring waves of school reform, education in the U.S. has been remarkably unsuccessful at implementing these goals in the classroom practices of education and at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education.

America, I suggest, suffers from a school syndrome.  We have set our school system up for failure by asking it to fix all of our most pressing social problems, which we are unwilling to address more directly through political action rather than educational gesture.  Then we blame the system when it fails.  Both as a society and as individuals, we vest our greatest hopes in an institution that is manifestly unsuited to realizing them.  In part the system’s failure is the result of a tension between our shifting social aims for education and the system’s own organizational momentum.  We created the system to solve a critical social problem in the early days of the American republic, and its success in dealing with this problem fooled us into thinking that we could redirect the system toward new problems as time passed.  But the school system has a mind of its own, and trying to change its direction is like trying to do a U-turn with a battleship.

Today I will explore the failure of school reform to realize the central social goals that have driven it over the years.  And at the end I explore the roots of schooling’s failure in its role as an agent of social reform.

The social missions of schooling in liberal democracies arise from the tensions that are inherent in such societies.  One of these tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  In the American setting, these tensions have played out through the politics of education in the form of a struggle among three major social goals for the educational system.  One goal is democratic equality, which sees education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens.  Another is social efficiency, which sees education as a mechanism for developing productive workers.  A third is social mobility, which sees education as a mechanism for individuals to reinforce or enhance their social position.

Democratic equality represents the political side of our liberal democratic values, focusing on the role of education in building a nation, forming a republican community, and providing citizens with the wide range of capabilities required to take part in democratic decision-making.  The other two goals represent the market side of liberal democracy.  Social efficiency captures the perspective of employers and taxpayers, who are concerned about the role of education in producing the job skills (human capital) that are required by the modern economy and that are seen as essential for economic growth and social prosperity.  From this angle the issue is for education to provide for the full range of productive skills and forms of knowledge required in the complex job structure of modern capitalism.  Social mobility captures the perspective of educational consumers and prospective employees, who are concerned about the role of educational credentials in signaling to the market which individuals should get the jobs with the most power, money, and prestige.

The collectivist side of liberal democracy is expressed by a combination of democratic equality and social efficiency.  Both aim at having education provide broad social benefits, with both conceiving of education as a public good.  Investing in the political capital of the citizenry and the human capital of the workforce benefits everyone in society, including those families who do not have children in school.  In contrast, the social mobility goal represents the individualist side of liberal democracy.  From this perspective, education is a private good, which benefits only the student who receives educational services and owns the resulting diplomas.  Its primary function is to provide educational consumers with privileged access to higher level jobs in the competition with other prospective employees.

So let me look at how well – or rather, how poorly – American schools have done at accomplishing these three social missions.

Democratic Equality

School systems around the world have been more effective at accomplishing their political mission than either their efficiency or mobility missions.  At the formative stage in the construction of a nation state, virtually anywhere in the world, education seems to have an important role to play.  The key contribution in this regard is that schooling helps form a national citizenry out of a collection of local identities.  One country after another developed a system of universal education at the point when it was trying to transform itself into a modern state, populated by citizens rather than subjects, with a common culture and a shared national identity.  For the U.S. in the early 19th century, the key problem during this transitional period was how to establish a modern social order based on exchange relations and democratic authority out of the remnants of a traditional social order based on patriarchal relations and feudal authority.  A system of public education helps to make this transition possible primarily by bringing a disparate group of youths in the community together under one roof and exposing them to a common curriculum and a common set of social experiences.  The result was to instill in students social norms that allowed them to emerge as self-regulating actors in the free market while still remaining good citizens and good Christians.  Creating such cultural communities is one of the few things that schools can consistently do well.

So the evidence shows that at the formative stage, school systems in the U.S. and elsewhere have been remarkably effective in promoting citizenship and forming a new social order.  This is quite an accomplishment, which more than justifies the huge investment in constructing these systems.  And building on this capacity for forming community, schools have continued to play an important role as the agent for incorporating newcomers.  This has been particularly important in an immigrant society like the United States, where – from the Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century to the Mexicans and South Asians in the early 21st century – schools have been the central mechanism for integrating foreigners into the American experience.

But the ability of schooling to promote democratic equality in the U.S. has had little to do with learning, it has faded over time, and it has been increasingly undermined by counter tendencies toward inequality.  First, note that when schools have been effective at community building, this had little to with the content of the curriculum or the nature of classroom teaching.  What was important was that schools provided a common experience for all students.  What they actually learned in school was irrelevant as long as they all were exposed to the same material.  It could have been anything.  It was the form of schooling more than its content that helped establish and preserve the American republic.

Second, the importance of schooling in forming community has declined over time.  The common school system was critically important in the formative days of the American republic; but once the country’s continued existence was no longer in doubt, the role of the system grew less critical.  As a result, the more recent ways in which schools have come to promote citizenship have been more formalistic than substantive.  This is now embedded in classes on American history, speeches at school assemblies, pilgrim pageants around Thanksgiving, presidential portraits on classroom walls, and playing the national anthem before football games.  What had been the system’s foremost rationale for existence has now retreated into the background of a system more concerned with other issues.

Third, and most important, however, the role of schools in promoting democratic equality has declined because schools have simultaneously been aggressively promoting social inequality.  One of the recurring themes of my book is that every move by American schools in the direction of equality has been countered by a strong move in the opposite direction.  When we created a common school system in the early 19th century, we also created a high school system to distinguish middle class students from the rest.  When we expanded access to the high school at the start of the 20th century, we also created a system for tracking students within the school and opened the gates for middle class enrollment in college.  When we expanded access to college in the mid-20th century, we funneled new students into the lower tiers of the system and encouraged middle class students to pursue graduate study.  The American school system is at least as much about social difference as about social equality.  In fact, as the system has developed, the idea of equality has become more formalistic, focused primarily on the notion of broad access to education at a certain level, while the idea of inequality has become more substantive, embodied in starkly different educational and social trajectories.

Social Efficiency

In the current politics of education, the goal of social efficiency plays a prominent role.  One of the central beliefs of contemporary economics, international development, and educational policy is that education is the key to economic development as a valuable investment in human capital.  Today it is hard to find a political speech, reform document, or opinion piece about education that does not include a paean to the critical role that education plays in developing human capital and spurring economic growth – and the need to reform schools in order to fix what’s wrong with the economy.

Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have made a strong argument for the human capital vision of education in their recent book, The Race Between Education and Technology.  They argue that the extraordinary expansion of the American economy in the 20th century was to a large degree the result of an equally extraordinary expansion in educational enrollments during this period.  It is no coincidence, they say, that what turned out to be the American Century economically was also the Human Capital Century for the U.S.

The numbers are indeed staggering.  In the United States education levels rose dramatically for most of the 20th century.  For those born between 1876 and 1951, the average number of years of schooling rose a total of 6 years, which is an increase of 0.8 years per decade.  This means that the average education level of the entire U.S. population rose from less than 8 years of grade school to two years of college in only 75 years.  The authors estimate that the growth in education in the U.S. accounted for between 12 and 17 percent of the growth in economic productivity across the 20th century, with the average educational contribution at 13.5 percent.  Put another way, they argue that increased education alone accounted for economic growth of about one-third of one percent per year from 1915-2005.

One problem with this claim, however, is that the size of the human capital effect they show is relatively small.  On average they estimate that the growth in educational attainment accounted for less that 14 percent of the growth in economic productivity over the course of the 20th century.  That’s not negligible but it’s also not overwhelming.  This wouldn’t be a concern if education were a modest investment drawing a modest return, because every little bit helps when it comes to economic growth.  But that’s clearly not the case.  Education has long been the largest single expenditure of American state and local governments, which over the course of the 20th century devoured about 30 percent of their total budgets.  In 1995 this came to almost $400 billion in direct payments for elementary, secondary, and higher education.  In short, as costly as education is, it would seem that its economic benefits would need to be more substantial than they are in order to justify these expenses as a solid investment in the nation’s wealth instead of a large drain on this wealth.

Another problem is that it is hard to establish that in fact education was the cause and economy the effect in this story.  The authors make clear that the growth in high school and college enrollments both exceeded and preceded demand for such workers from the economy.  Employers were not begging high schools to produce more graduates in order to meet the needs for greater skill in the workplace; instead they were taking advantage of a situation in which large numbers of educated workers were available, and could be hired without a large wage premium, for positions that in the past had not required this level of education.  So why not hire them?  And once these high school graduates were on the job, the employers may have found them useful to have around (maybe they required less training), so employers began to express a preference for high school graduates in future hiring.  But just because the workforce was becoming more educated didn’t mean that the presence of educated workers was the source of increases in economic productivity.  It could just as easily have been the other way around.

Producing a large increase in high school graduates was enormously expensive, especially considering that the supply of these graduates was much greater than the economic demand for them.  But strong economic growth provided enough of a fiscal surplus that state and local governments were able afford to do so.  In short, it makes sense to think that it was economic growth that made educational growth possible.  We expanded high school because we could afford to.  And we wanted to do so not because we thought it would provide social benefits by improving the economy but instead because we hoped it would provide us with personal benefits.  The authors point out that the growth of high school enrollments was not the result of a reform movement.  Instead, the demand for high school came from educational consumers.  Middle class families saw high school and college as a way to gain an edge – or keep their already existing edge – in the competition for good jobs.  And working class families saw high school as a way to provide their children with the possibility of a better life than their own.  The demand came from the bottom up not the top down.  Administrative progressives later capitalized on the growth of the high school by trying to harness it for their own social efficiency agenda, as expressed in the 1918 Cardinal Principles report.  But by then the process of high school expansion was already well under way, with little help from them.

The major accomplishment of the American school system was not necessarily that it provided education but that it provided access.  The system may or may not have been effective at teaching students the kinds of skills and knowledge that would economically useful, but it was quite effective at inviting students into the schools and keeping them there for an extended period of time.  Early in their book, Goldin and Katz identify what they consider to be the primary “virtues” of the American educational system as it developed before the civil war and continued into the 20th century.  In effect, these virtues of the system all revolve around its broad accessibility.  They include:  “public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.”

Note that none of these virtues of the American school system speaks to learning the curriculum.  Instead all have to do with the form of the system, in particular its accessibility and flexibility.  I thoroughly agree.  But for the human capital argument that Goldin and Katz are trying to make, these virtues of the system pose a problem.  How was the system able to provide graduates with the skills needed to spur economic growth when the system’s primary claim to fame was that it invited everyone in and then was reluctant to penalize anyone for failing to learn?  In effect, the system’s greatest strength was its low academic standards.  If it had screened students more carefully on the way in and graded them more scrupulously on their academic achievement, high school and college enrollments and graduation rates never would have expanded so rapidly and we would all be worse off.  This brings us to the third goal of education, social mobility.

Social Mobility

In liberal democracies in general, and in the United States in particular, hope springs eternal that expanding educational opportunity will increase social mobility and social equality.  This has been a prime factor in the rhetoric of the American educational reform movements for desegregation, standards, and choice.  But the evidence to support that hope simply doesn’t exist.  The problem is this:  In the way that education interacts with social mobility and social equality, both of these measures of social position are purely relative.  Both are cases of what social scientists call a zero sum game:  A + B = 0.  If A goes up then B must go down in order to keep the sum at zero.  If one person gets ahead of someone else on the social ladder, then that other person has fallen behind.  And if the social differences between two people become more equal, then the increase in social advantage for one person means the decrease in social advantage for the other.  Symmetry is built into both measures.

Although social equality is inherently relative, it is possible to think of social mobility in terms of absolute rather than relative position.  During the 20th century in the U.S., the proportion of agricultural, manufacturing, and other blue collar workers declined while the proportion of clerical, managerial, professional, and other white collar workers rose.  At the same time the proportion of  people with a grade school education declined while the proportion with more advanced education rose.  So large numbers of families had the experience in which parents were blue collar and their children white collar, parents had modest education and their children had more education.  In absolute terms, therefore, social mobility from blue collar to white collar work during this period was substantial, as children not only moved up in job classification compared to their parents but also gained higher pay and a higher standard of living.  And this social mobility was closely related to a substantial rise in education levels.  This was a great success story, and it is understandable why those involved would attribute these social gains to education.  For large numbers of Americans, it seemed to confirm the adage: to get a good job, get a good education.  Schooling seemed to help people move up the ladder.

At the individual level, this perception was quite correct.  In the 20th century, it became the norm for employers to set minimum educational qualifications for jobs, and in general the amount of education required rose as one moved up the occupational ladder.  Youths overall had a strong incentive to pursue more education in order to reap social and economic rewards.  Economic studies regularly demonstrate a varying but substantial return on a family’s investment in education for their children.  For example, one estimate shows that males between 1914 and 2005 earned a premium in lifetime earnings for every year of college that ranged from 8 to 14 percent.  That makes education a great investment for families – better than the stock market, which had an average annual return of about 8 percent during the same period.

What is true for some individuals, however, is not necessarily true for society as a whole.  As I explained about social efficiency, it is not clear that increasing the number of college graduates leads to an increase in the number of higher level jobs for these graduates to fill.  To me it seems more plausible to look at the connection between education and jobs this way:  The economy creates jobs, and education is the way we allocate people to those jobs.  Candidates with more education qualify for better jobs.  What this means is that social mobility becomes a relative thing, which depends on the number of individuals with a particular level of education at a given time and the number of positions requiring this level of education that are available at that same time.  If there are more positions than candidates at that level, all of the qualified candidates get the jobs along with some who have lower qualifications; but if there are more candidates than positions, then some qualified applicants will end up in lower level positions.  So the economic value of education varies according to the job market.  An increase in education without a corresponding increase in higher level jobs in the economy will reduce the value of a degree in the market for educational credentials.

This poses a problem for the chances of social mobility between parents and children.  After all, children are not competing with their parents for jobs; they’re competing with peers.  And like themselves, their peers have a higher level of education than their parents do.  In relative terms, they only have an advantage in the competition for jobs if they have gained even more education than their peers have.  Educational gains relative to peers are what matter not gains relative to parents.  As a result, rates of social mobility have not increased over time as educational opportunity has increased, and societies with more expansive educational systems do not have higher mobility rates.

Raymond Boudon and others have shown that the problem is that increases in access to education affect everyone, both those who are trying to get ahead and those who are already ahead.  Early in the 20th century, working class parents had a grade school education and their children poured into high schools in order to get ahead; but at the same time, middle class parents had a high school education and their children were pouring into colleges.  So both groups increased education and their relative position remained the same.  The new high school graduates didn’t get ahead by getting more education; they were running just to stay in place.  The new college graduates didn’t necessarily get ahead either, but they did manage to stay ahead.

So school reform in the U.S. has failed to increase social mobility or reduce social inequality.  In fact, without abandoning our identity as a liberal democracy, there was simply no way that educational growth could have brought about these changes.  School reform can only have a chance to equalize social differences if it can reduce the gap in educational attainment between middle class students and working class students.  This is politically impossible in a liberal democracy, since it would mean restricting the ability of the middle class to pursue more and better education for their children.  As long as both groups gain more education in parallel, then the advantages of the one over the other will not decline.  And that is exactly the situation in the American school system.  It’s the compromise that has emerged from the interaction between reform and market, between social planning and consumer action: we expand opportunity and preserve advantage, both at the same time.  From this perspective, the defining moment in the history of American education was the construction of the tracked comprehensive high school, which was a joint creation of consumers and reformers in the progressive era.  That set the pattern for everything that followed.  It’s a system that is remarkably effective at allowing both access and advantage, but it’s not one that reformers tried to create.  In fact, it works against the realization of central aims of reform, since it undermines social efficiency, blocks social mobility, and limits democratic equality.

These three goals, however, have gained expression in the American educational system in at least two significant ways.  First, they have maintained a highly visible presence in educational rhetoric, as the politics of education continuously pushes these goals onto the schools and the schools themselves actively express their allegiance to these same goals.  Second, schools have adopted the form of these goals into their structure and process.  Democratic equality has persisted in the formalism of social studies classes, school assemblies, and the display of political symbols.  Social efficiency has persisted in the formalism of vocational classes, career days, and standards-based testing.  Social mobility has persisted in the formalism of grades, credits, and degrees, which students accumulate as they move through the school system.

Roots of the Failure of School Reform to Resolve Social Problems

In closing, let me summarize the reasons for the continuing failure of school reform in the U.S.

The Tensions Among School Goals:  One reason for the failure of reform to realize the social goals expressed in it is that these goals reflect the core tensions within a liberal democracy, which push both school and society in conflicting directions.  One of those tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  As we have seen, these tensions cannot be resolved one way or the other if we are going to remain a liberal democracy, so schools will inevitably fail at maximizing any of these goals.  The result is going to be a muddled compromise rather than a clear cut victory in meeting particular expectations.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.

The Tendency Toward Organizational Conservatism:  There is also another layer of impediment that lies between social goals and their fulfillment via education, and that is the tension between education’s social goals and its organizational practices.  Schools gain their origins from social goals, which they dutifully express in an institutional form, as happened with the construction of the common school system.  This results in the development of school organization, curriculums, pedagogies, professional roles, and a complex set of occupational and organizational interests.  At this more advanced stage, schools and educators are no longer simply the media for realizing social aspirations; they become major actors in the story.  As such, they shape what happens in education in light of their own needs and interests, organizational patterns,  and professional norms and practices.  And this then becomes a major issue in educational reform.  Such reforms are what happens after schooling is already in motion organizationally, when society seeks to assign new ideals to education or revive old ones that have fallen into disuse, thus initiating an effort to transform the institution toward the pursuit of different ends.  But at that point society is no longer able simply to project its values onto the institution it created to express these values; instead it must negotiate an interaction with an ongoing enterprise.  As a result, reform has to change both the values embedded in education and the formal structure itself, which may well resist.  As I have shown elsewhere, three characteristics of the American school system – loose coupling, weak instructional control, and teacher autonomy – have made this system remarkably effective at blocking reforms from reaching the classroom.

Reformer Arrogance:  Another problem that leads to the failure of school reform is simple arrogance.  School reformers spin out an abstract vision of what school and society should be, and then they try to bring reality in line with the vision.  But this abstract reformist grid doesn’t map comfortably onto the parochial and idiosyncratic ecology of the individual classroom.  Trying to push too hard to make the classroom fit the grid may destroy the ecology of learning there; and adapting the grid enough to make it workable in the classroom may change the reform to the point that its original aims are lost.  Reformers are loath to give up their aims in the service of making the reform acceptable to teachers, so they tend to plow ahead in search of ways to get around the obstacles.  If they can’t make change in cooperation with teachers, then they will have to so in spite of them.  They see a crying need to fix a problem through school reform, and they have developed a theory for how to do this, which looks just great on paper.  Standing in the state capital or the university, they are far from the practical realities of the classroom, and they tend to be impatient with demands that they should respect the complexity of the settings in which they are trying to intervene.

The Marginality of School Reform to School Change:  Finally, we need to remind ourselves that school reform has always been only a small part of the broader process of school change.  Reform movements are deliberate efforts by groups of people to change schools in a direction they value and to resolve a social problem that concerns them.  We measure the success of these movements by the degree to which the outcomes match the intentions of the reformers.  But there’s another player in the school change game, and that’s the market.  By this I mean the accumulated actions of educational consumers who are pursuing their own interests through the schooling of their children.  From the colonial days, when the expressed purpose of schooling was to support the one true faith, consumers were pursuing literacy and numeracy for reasons that had nothing to do with religion and a lot to do with enhancing their ability to function in a market society.

That very personal and practical dimension of education was there from the beginning, even though no one wanted to talk about it, much less launch a reform movement in its name.  And this individual dimension of schooling has only expanded its scope over the years, becoming larger in the late 19th century and then dominant in the 20th century, as increasingly educational credentials became the ticket of admission for the better jobs.  The fact that public schools have long been creatures of politics – established, funded, and governed through the medium of a democratic process – means that they have been under unrelenting pressure to meet consumer demand for the kind of schooling that will help individuals move up, stay up, or at least not drop down in their position in the social order.  This pressure is exerted through individual consumer actions, such as by attending school or not, going to this school not that one, enrolling in this program not some other program.  It is also exerted by political actions, such as by supporting expansion of educational opportunity and preserving educational advantage in the midst of wide access.

These actions by consumers and voters have brought about significant changes in the school system, even though these changes have not been the aim of any of the consumers themselves.  They have not been acting as reformers with a social cause but as individuals pursuing their own interests through education, so the changes they have produced in schooling by and large have been inadvertent.  Yet these unintended effects of consumer action have often derailed or redirected the intended effects of school reformers.  They created the comprehensive high school, dethroned social efficiency, pushed vocational education to the margins, and blocked the attack on de facto segregation.  Educational consumers may well keep the current school standards movement from meeting its goals if they feel that standards, testing, and accountability are threatening educational access and educational advantage.  They may also pose an impediment to the school choice movement, even though it is being carried out explicitly in their name.  For consumers may feel more comfortable tinkering with the system they know than in taking the chance that blowing up this system might produce something that is less suited to serving their needs.  In the American system of education, it seems, the consumer – not the reformer – has long been king.


Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Uncategorized

From Citizens to Consumers — Abbreviated Version with New Conclusion about Why We Keep Trying to Reform Schools

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.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Systems of Schooling

From Citizens to Consumers: Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.

This post is the text of a lecture I delivered last week in Japan at Kyoto University and Keio University.  It draws on the second chapter of my book, Someone Has to Fail (which has been translated into Japanese), and at the end I try to bring the analysis up to the present.  The subject is the evolving rhetoric of school reform over the course of the history of U.S. education.  At core, I try to explain how a system designed to produce citizens for the republic evolved into a system that seeks to produce human capital for the economy and to provide social opportunity and preserve social advantage for educational consumers.  If you’d like to see the sources, check out the book chapter.

Here’s a link to the text of the lecture, and here’s a link to the slides I used (which provide a useful overview of the argument).


From Citizens to Consumers:

Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.


David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University



Twitter: @Dlabaree


Lecture delivered at Kyoto University and Keio University

November, 2019


For better and for worse, the American system of education is truly a marvel.  Compared to other countries, public education in the U.S. has been extraordinarily accessible.  It emerged early, expanded quickly, and then rapidly extended access to high school and college.  In the process the United States claimed the distinction of having the first educational system in the world to attain something approaching universal elementary schooling, universal high school attendance, and mass higher education.

But to call American public education a system seems a contradiction in terms, because it also has the distinction of being radically decentralized, with some 14,000 school districts responsible for setting policy and running schools.  Even though the educational role of the federal government has been growing in the last several decades, it is still hard to find any structure of public education in the world that is more independent of national control.  And to applaud the American system of schooling for its great accessibility is to recognize only half the story, since the system balances radical equality of access with radical inequality of outcomes.  Students have an easy time gaining entry to education in the U.S., but they have strikingly different educational experiences and gain strikingly different social benefits from their education.  One other characteristic of the American educational system further dims its luster, and that is the chronically mediocre academic performance of its students.  In world comparisons over the last few decades, American elementary and secondary students have consistently scored at a level that is average at best.

In short, the American system of education is highly accessible, radically unequal, organizationally fragmented, and instructionally mediocre.  In combination, these characteristics have provided a strong and continuing incentive for school reformers to try to change the system, by launching reform movements that would seek to broaden access, reduce inequality, transform governance, and improve learning.  But at the same time that these traits have spurred reform efforts, they have also kept reformers from accomplishing their aims.

For example, every effort to expand access for new students at a given level of the system has tended to provoke counter efforts to preserve the educational advantage of the old students.  When high school enrollment began to expand sharply at the start of the 20th century, the response was to establish curriculum tracking in the high school (with the new students falling into the lower tracks) and to spur the old students to attend college.  But such efforts to preserve educational advantage at a given level of the system and extend it to the next level have tended to provoke counter measures to reduce this advantage by broadening access at the new level.  So by the mid-20th century growing demand for college access brought a flood of new students.  But this just continued the cycle of action and reaction, since the new students largely enrolled in new lower track institutions set up to handle the influx while traditional students concentrated at the established higher status institutions and increasingly moved on to graduate school.

At the same time, the local autonomy of districts, schools, and classrooms in the American educational system has made it hard for reform initiatives to reach the heart of the system where teaching and learning take place, and particularly hard to implement reforms that improve classroom learning.  Exacerbating this tendency has been one additional characteristic of the system, which is that most educational consumers have shown preference for a school system that provides an edge in the competition for jobs more than for one that enriches student learning.  We have continually demonstrated interest more in getting a diploma than getting an education.

In this lecture, I look at the visions that these reform movements projected onto the American school system.  Here I’m focusing not on the impact of reform but on its rhetoric.  As found in major reform documents, the shifting language of reform shows how the mission of the school system evolved over time, as reformers repeatedly tried to push the system to embrace new goals and refine old ones in an effort to solve an expanding array of social challenges.

Shifting the Focus of Schooling from Citizens to Consumers

This is a story about the evolving language of educational reform in the United States.  It starts in the early 19th century with a republican vision of education for civic virtue and ends in the early 21st century with a consumerist vision of education for equal opportunity.  The story is about how we got from there to here, drawing on major reform texts that span this period.  It’s also a story about how we developed the ideas about education that laid the groundwork for the American obsession with schooling.

This rhetorical change consisted of two main shifts, each of which occurred at two levels.  First, the overall balance in the purposes of schooling shifted from a political rationale (shoring up the new republic) to a market rationale (promoting social efficiency and social mobility).  And the political rationale itself evolved from a substantive vision of education for civic virtue to a procedural vision of education for equal opportunity.  Second, in a closely related change, the reform rhetoric shifted from viewing education as a public good to viewing it as a private good.  And the understanding of education as a public good itself evolved from a politically-grounded definition (education for republican community) to a market-grounded definition (education for human capital).

I explore these changes through an examination of a series of reform documents that represent the major reform movements in the history of American education, starting with the common school movement in the mid-19th century and ending with the movements for curriculum standards and school choice in the 21st century.

The evolution of educational rhetoric in the U.S. fits within a larger cross-national pattern in the evolving republican conversation about schooling.  Republican ideas played a foundational role in the formation of public education in a number of countries during the long 19th century.  Although this role varied from one context to another, the republican vision in general called for a system of education that would shape the kind of self-regulating and civic minded citizen needed to sustain a viable republican community.  That system was the modern public school.  At the heart of its mission was the delicate and critical task of balancing two elements at the heart of republican thinking – the autonomous individual and the common good.  The primary contribution of the school was its ability to instill a vision of the republic within future citizens in a manner that promoted individual choice while inducing them to pursue the public interest of their own will.  This effort posed twin dangers:  too much emphasis on individual interests could turn republican community into a pluralist society defined by the competition of private interests; but too much emphasis on community could turn the republic into authoritarian society that sacrificed individual freedom to collective interests.  A liberal republican society requires an educational system that can instill a commitment to both individual liberty and civic virtue.

As I show today, the rhetoric of education in the U.S. shifted over time from a political vision of a civic-minded citizen to a market vision of a self-interested consumer.  But the idea of republican community did not disappear from the educational mission.  Instead the political goal of education shifted from producing civic virtue in the service of the republic to producing human capital and individual opportunity.  The end result, however, was to redirect the republican vision of education sharply in the direction of private interests and individual opportunities.

Competing Social Goals for Schooling

A major factor in the transformation of reform rhetoric was the market.  While a number of reform efforts – the common school movement, the progressive movement, the civil rights movement, the standards movement, and the school choice movement – occupied center stage in the drama of school reform, the market initially exerted its impact from a position off stage.  Over time, however, the market gradually muscled its way into the center of American education, shaping both the structure of the school system (by emphasizing inequality and discounting learning) and more recently the rhetoric of school reform (by emphasizing occupational skills and promoting individual opportunity).  In the current period, when the market vision has come to drive the educational agenda, the political vision of education’s social role remains prominent as an actor in the reform drama, frequently called upon by reformers of all stripes.  (I examine here the way the standards and choice movements both belatedly adopted political rhetoric after originally trying to do without it.)  But the definition of this political vision has become more abstract, its deployment more adaptable, and its impact more diffuse than in the early 19th century, when a well-defined set of republican ideals drove the creation of the American system of common schools.

The language of educational goals arises from the core tensions within a liberal republic.  One of those tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  In the American setting, these tensions have played out through the politics of education in the form of a struggle among three major social goals for the educational system.  One goal is democratic equality, which sees education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens.  Another is social efficiency, which sees education as a mechanism for developing productive workers.  A third is social mobility, which sees education as a mechanism for individuals to reinforce or enhance their social position.

Democratic equality represents the political side of our liberal republican values, focusing on the role of education in building a nation, forming a republican community, and providing citizens with the wide range of capabilities required for effective participation in democratic decision-making.  The other two goals represent the market side of liberal republicanism.  Social efficiency captures the perspective of employers and taxpayers, who are concerned about the role of education in producing the job skills (human capital) that are required by the modern economy and that are seen as essential for economic growth and general prosperity.  Social mobility captures the perspective of educational consumers and prospective employees, who are concerned about the role of educational credentials in signaling to the market which individuals have the productive skills that qualify them for the jobs with highest levels of power, money, and prestige.

The collectivist side of liberal republicanism is expressed by a combination of democratic equality and social efficiency.  Both aim at having education provide broad social benefits, with both conceiving of education as a public good.  Investing in the political capital of the citizenry and the human capital of the workforce benefits everyone in society, including those families who do not have children in school.  In contrast, the social mobility goal represents the individualist side of liberal democracy.  From this perspective, education is a private good, which benefits only the student who receives educational services and owns the resulting educational diplomas.

With this mix of goals imposed on it, education in liberal republics has come to look like an institution at odds with itself.  After all, it is being asked simultaneously to serve politics and markets, promote equality and inequality, construct itself and as a public and private good, serve collective interests and individual interests.  Politically, its structure should be flat, its curriculum common, and enrollment universal; economically, its structure should be hierarchical, its curriculum tracked, and enrollment scaled by high rates of attrition.  From the perspective of democratic equality and social efficiency, its aim is socialization, to provide knowledge that is usable for citizens and workers; from the perspective of social mobility, its aim is selection, to provide credentials that allow access to good jobs, independent of any learning that might have occurred in acquiring these credentials.

In this sense, then, these educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal republic, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its republicanism.  Therefore when we project our liberal republican goals on schools, we want them to take each of these goals seriously but not to implement any one of them beyond modest limits, since to do so would be to put the other equally valued goals in significant jeopardy.  We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests.  We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the efficiency of the economy.  As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals.  It is also a failure in solving the social problems assigned to it, since these problems cannot be solved in a manner that simultaneously satisfies all three goals.  In particular, social problems rooted in the nature of the social structure simply cannot be resolved by deploying educational programs to change individuals.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal republican mind.

The Common School Movement:  Schools for the Republic

As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Public Education in the 1840s, Horace Mann became the most effective champion of the American common school movement, which established the American public school system in the years before the Civil War.   Its primary accomplishment was not in increasing literacy, which was already widespread in the U.S., but in drawing public support for a publicly funded and publicly controlled system of education that served all the members of the community.  What was new was less the availability of education than its definition as an institution that both expressed and reinforced community.

Mann’s Twelfth Annual Report, published in 1848, provides the most comprehensive summary of the argument for the common schools.  In it he made clear that the primary rationale for this institution was political:  to create citizens with the knowledge, skills, and public-spirited dispositions required to maintain a republic and to protect it from the sources of faction, class, and self interest that pose the primary threat to its existence.  After exploring the dangers that the rapidly expanding market economy posed to the fabric of republican community by introducing class conflict, he proclaimed:

Now, surely, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor….

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery….  It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor….  If this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.

A few pages later, he summed up his argument with the famous statement, “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”  In his view, then, schools were given the centrally important political task of making citizens for a republic.  All other functions were subordinate to this one.

Emerging Consumerism:  Schools for Social Mobility

Horace Mann and the other leaders of the common school movement were reluctant to portray education as a mechanism for promoting worldly gain, but the students and parents who were consuming this new cultural commodity showed less reluctance in that regard.  Compelled by the need to survive and the ambition to thrive in a market economy, citizens quickly began to think of education as something more than a politically desirable mechanism for preserving the republic; they also saw it as a way to get ahead in society.  Reading, writing, and the manipulation of numbers were essential for anyone who wanted to function effectively in the commercial life of the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Individuals did not need republican theory or compulsory schooling laws to make them acquire these skills, which is one reason why literacy was a precursor rather than an outcome of the common school movement in the U.S.

But this compelling rationale for education – schooling for social mobility – was not something that appeared prominently in the rhetoric of school reform until well into the 20th century.  One reason for this silence was that the idea of education as a way to get ahead was a matter of common sense in a society that was founded in market relations.  It was not the subject of reform rhetoric because this idea was already widely accepted.  Another reason was that people felt a bit embarrassed about voicing such a self-interested motive for education in the face of the selfless political rationale for education that dominated public discussion in the early United States.  But the absence of such talk did not deny the reality that commercial motives for schooling were strong.

This relative silence about an important factor shaping education resonates with an important paradox in the history of school reform identified by David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their book, Tinkering Toward Utopia.  Reform rhetoric swirls around the surface of schools, making a lot of noise but not necessarily penetrating below the surface; while evolutionary forces of structural change may be proceeding powerfully but slowly outside of view, making substantial changes over time without ever necessarily being verbalized or becoming part of a reform agenda.

The story I’m telling in this lecture is about the interaction between these two levels – the changing rhetoric of educational reform in the U.S. over the past 200 years and its relationship with the quiet but increasingly potent impact of market forces on American schools.  I suggest that the rhetorical shifts in subsequent educational reform movements were attempts to reach an accommodation between economy and society through the institution of education, which turned increasingly critical as education itself became more economically useful to both employers and employees in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

By the 1890s, growing clerical and managerial occupations created a defined market for high school graduates.  The result was enormous demand by educational consumers for access to high school, which until them was open only to a small elite.  In response, US high school enrollments doubled every decade for the next 50 years.  The consumer was now king.

Administrative Progressivism: Schools for Social Efficiency

The progressive education movement burst on the scene in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century.  It was a complex movement with a wide range of actors and tendencies embedded within it, but two main strands in particular stand out.  Child-centered progressives (such as John Dewey) focused on teaching and learning in classrooms, advocating child centered pedagogy, discovery learning, and student engagement.  Administrative progressives (such as Edward Thorndike) focused on the structure of school governance and curriculum, advocating a mission of social efficiency for schools, which meant preparing students for their future social roles.  I focus on administrative progressivism here for the simple reason that they won and the pedagogues lost in the competition over exerting an impact on American schools.

In 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued a report to the National Education Association titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which spelled out the administrative progressive position on education more clearly and more consequentially than any other single document.  The report announces at the very beginning that secondary schools need to change in response to changes in society.

Within the past few decades changes have taken place in American life profoundly affecting the activities of the individual.  As a citizen, he must to a greater extent and in a more direct way cope with problems of community life, State and National Governments, and international relationships.  As a worker, he must adjust himself to a more complex economic order.  This calls for a degree of intelligence and efficiency on the part of every citizen that can not be secured through elementary education alone, or even through secondary education unless the scope of that education is broadened.

Here we see the basic themes of the report:  Schools exist to help individuals adapt to the needs of society; as society becomes more complex, schools must transform themselves accordingly; and in this way they will help citizens develop the socially needed qualities of “intelligence and efficiency.”

This focus on social efficiency, however, didn’t deter the authors from drawing on political rhetoric to support their position.  In fact, the authors framed this report in explicitly political terms.  In a 12,000 word report, they used the terms “democracy” or “democratic” no fewer than 40 times.  (The words “republic” and “republican” are nowhere to be found.)

What do they mean by democracy?  They spell this out in two statements in bold-faced type in a section called “The Goal of Education in a Democracy.”

The purpose of democracy is so to organize society that each member may develop his personality primarily through activities designed for the well-being of his fellow members and of society as a whole….

So democracy is about organizing individuals for the benefit of society, and education is about readying individuals to assume their proper place in that society.  This is as crisp a definition as one can find for socially efficient education.

The commission follows up on this statement principles to spell out the implications for the high school curriculum:

This commission, therefore, regards the following as the main objectives of education: 1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.

What a striking array of goals for education this is.  In comparison with Horace Mann’s grand vision of schooling for the republic, we have a list of useful functions that schools can serve for society, only one of which focuses on citizenship.  Furthermore, this list confines the rich array of liberal arts subjects to a single category; the authors give it the dumbed-down and dismissive title, “command of fundamental processes;” and they assign it a parallel position with such mundane educational objectives as “worthy home membership” and “worthy use of leisure.”

Later in the report, the commission spelled out an important implication of their vision of secondary education.  Not only must the curriculum be expanded radically, but it must also be sharply differentiated if it is going to meet the needs of a differentiated occupational structure.  The commission is explaining that their call for a socially efficient education in practice means vocationalism, with the vocational skills required by the job market driving the curriculum and slicing it into segments based on the specific jobs toward which students are heading.  Any leftover space in the curriculum could then be used for “those having distinctively academic interests and needs.”

This report, the keystone of the administrative progressive movement, represents two major transformations in the rhetoric of the common school movement.  First, whereas Mann’s reports used economic arguments to support a primarily political purpose for schooling (preparing citizens with civic virtue), Cardinal Principles turned this upside down, using political arguments about the requirements of democracy to support a vision of schooling that was primarily economic (preparing efficient workers).  The politics of the Cardinal Principles thus serves as a thin veneer on a structure of socially efficient education, dressing up what would otherwise be a depressingly pedestrian vision, without being specified in sufficient depth as to intrude on the newly asserted vocational function of schooling.

Second, in Cardinal Principles the administrative progressives preserved the common school movement’s understanding of education as a public good.  There is no talk in the report about education as a kind of personal property, which offers selective benefits to the credential holder; instead, the emphasis is relentlessly on the collective benefits of education to society.  What is new, however, is this:  Whereas the common school men defined education as a public good in political terms, the progressives defined it a public good in economic terms.  Yes, education serves the interests of society as a whole, said the progressives; but it does so not by producing civic virtue but by producing human capital.

The Civil Rights Movement:  Schools for Equal Opportunity

If the administrative progressive movement marginalized the political argument for education, using it as window-dressing for a vision of education as a mechanism for creating productive workers, the civil rights movement brought politics back to the center of the debate about schools.  In the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for a unanimous court, made a forceful political argument for the need to desegregate American schools.  The question he was addressing was whether to overturn the Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal,” established in an earlier decision, as a violation of the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution (passed at the end of the Civil War) which guaranteed all citizens the “equal protection of the laws.”

The Court’s reasoning moved through two main steps in reaching this conclusion.  First, Warren argued that the social meaning of education had changed dramatically in the 90 years since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the years after the Civil War, “The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown.”  As a result, education was not seen as an essential right of any citizen; but that had now changed.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments….  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

This led to the second part of the argument.  If education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,” then the question was whether segregated education could be seen as providing truly equal educational opportunity for black and white students.  Here Warren drew on social science research to argue that “To separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

In combination, these two arguments – education is an essential right and segregated education is inherently harmful – led Warren to his conclusion:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The argument in this decision was at heart political, asserting that education is a constitutional right of every citizen that must be granted to everyone on equal terms.  But note that the political vision in Brown is quite different from the political vision put forward by Mann.  For the common school movement, schools were critically important in the effort to build a republic; their purpose was political.  But for the civil rights movement, schools were critically important as a mechanism of social opportunity.   Their purpose was to promote social mobility.  Politics was just the means by which one could demand access to this attractive educational commodity.  In this sense, then, Brown depicted education as a private good, whose benefits accrue to the degree holder and not to society as a whole.  The Court’s argument was not that granting access to equal education for blacks would enhance society, both black and white; instead, it argued that blacks were suffering from segregation and would benefit from desegregation.  Quality education was an important form of property that they had been denied, and the remedy was to provide them with access to it.

This is an argument that shows how much schools had come of age more than 100 years after Horace Mann.  Once created to support the republic, in a time when schools were marginal to the practical business of making a living, they had become central to every citizen’s ability to get a good job and get ahead socially.  In the process, however, the political vision of education has changed from a substantive focus on producing the citizens needed to sustain the republic to a procedural focus on providing social opportunities.  The idea of education as opportunity was already visible in Mann, but it was subordinated to the political project; here educational opportunity has become the project, and politics has become the means for asserting one’s right to it.

The Standards Movement 1.0:  Social Efficiency and Commonality

In 1983, the National Commission for Excellence in Education produced a report titled A Nation at Risk, which helped turn the nascent standards effort into a national reform movement.  It is useful to think of this movement in relation to its predecessors, both in the way it drew from them and the way it reacted against them rhetorically.  The standards movement emphasized a core academic curriculum for all students, which in turn stood as a harsh rebuke to the diffuse, differentiated, and nonacademic curriculum posed by Cardinal Principles; yet A Nation at Risk also shows a clear affinity with Cardinal Principles by defining the primary purpose of education as social efficiency.  At the same time, the standards movement’s emphasis on academic content and learning outcomes served as a counter to the civil rights movement, which focused primarily on access to educational opportunity rather than on the substance of learning; and its stress on education as a public good contrasted with Brown’s emphasis on education as a form of individual benefit.

The reports got off to a fast start, levying a dire warning about how bad things were and how important it was to reform the educational system.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur – others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

This passage set the tone for the rest of the report.  It asserted a vision of education as an intensely public good:  All Americans benefit from its successes, and all are threatened by its failures.  The nation is at risk.  This was in striking contrast with the vision of education in the Brown decision, which depicted education as a private good, one that was critically important to the possibility of social success for every individual.  In that view, it was black educational consumers who were at risk from segregation, not the nation.

But the report represented education as a particular type of public good, which benefited American society by providing it with the human capital it needed in order to be economically competitive with other nations.  The risk to the nation posed here was primarily economic, and the main role that education could play in alleviating this risk was to develop a more efficient mechanism for turning students into productive workers.  In parallel with the argument in Cardinal Principles, A Nation at Risk asserted that the issue of wealth production was the most important motive in seeking higher educational standards.

The report’s first three recommendations spelled out the core substance of the changes at the top of the priority list for the standards movement.  Under the heading, “Content,” the commission recommended “that State and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened.”  Under the heading “Standards and Expectations,” the commission recommended “more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student content” measured by means of “Standardized tests of achievement.”  Under the heading, “Time,” the commission recommended “more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.”

In stressing the need to refocus attention on a core academic curriculum for all students, A Nation at Risk stands as a rebuke to the differentiated and vocationalized curriculum of the Cardinal Principles, but it embraced the Principles’ vision of education for social efficiency.  It deployed a modest form of political rhetoric to support the standards effort (using some version of “citizen” 18 times and “democracy” two times in a nearly 18,000 word report), but the emphasis here was on education as a way to produce the human capital needed by the nation in global competition rather than Brown’s emphasis on education as a way to promote individual opportunity.  And by focusing on student learning rather than student access, it also represented a turn away from the equal opportunity concerns of the Brown decision.

School Choice Movement 1.0:  Markets Make Effective Schools

The school choice movement had its roots in Milton Friedman, who devoted a chapter to the subject in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom.  But the movement really took off as a significant reform effort in the 1990s, and a major text that shaped the policy discourse of these movement was a book by John Chubb and Terry Moe – Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools – which was published in 1990.  The argument they raised in favor of school choice consisted of two key components.  First, they used the literature on school effectiveness to argue that schools are most effective (that is, they are most efficient at promoting student learning) if they have the greatest degree of autonomy in administration, teaching, and curriculum.  Second, they argued that democratic governance of school systems necessarily leads to bureaucratic control of schools, which radically limits autonomy; whereas market-based governance, based on empowering educational consumers instead of empowering the state, leads to greater school autonomy.  As a result, they concluded, we need to shift from democratic to market control of schooling in order to make schools more educationally effective.

Like the standards movement, the choice movement inverted the rhetorical priorities of the common school movement, putting markets before politics.  But the approach was more radical than the one proposed in A Nation at Risk, because Chubb and Moe argued that democratic politics was in fact the reason that schools performed badly, and the remedy was remove schools from democratic control and hand them over to educational consumers:  “Our guiding principle in the design of a choice system is this: public authority must be put to use in creating a system that is almost entirely beyond the reach of public authority.”   Markets, they argued, are simply more efficient at promoting the school autonomy needed for effective teaching and learning.

The authors welcomed the fact that, by shifting control from a democratic polity to the educational consumer, the proposed school choice system would change education from a public good to a private good.

Under a system of democratic control, the public schools are governed by an enormous, far-flung constituency in which the interests of parents and students carry no special status or weight.  When markets prevail, parents and students are thrust onto center stage, along with the owners and staff of schools; most of the rest of society plays a distinctly secondary role, limited for the most part to setting the framework within which educational choices get made.

In this way, then, the rhetoric of the school choice movement at the close of the 20th century represented the opposite end of the scale from the rhetoric of the common school movement that set in motion the American public school system in middle of the 19th century.  In educational reform texts, we have moved all the way from a political rationale for education to a market rationale, and from seeing education as a public good to seeing it as a private good.  Instead of extolling the benefits of having a common school system promote a single virtuous republican community, reformers were extolling the benefits of having an atomized school system serve the differential needs a vast array of disparate consumer subcultures.

Standards 2.0:  Broadening the Base with a Political Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The start of the 21st century saw an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the standards movement and the choice movement, as both incorporated the language of equal opportunity from the civil rights movement.  Whether these changes represented a change of heart or merely change of strategy is beyond the scope of my argument here.  My focus in this lecture is on the changing rhetoric of reform, and in both cases the change helped broaden the appeal of the reform effort by expanding the reasons for joining the movement.  In their original form, both movements ran into significant limitations in their ability to draw support, and both turned to a very effective political argument from the civil rights movement to add passion and breadth to their mode of appeal.

A Nation at Risk made a strong case for supporting educational standards and accountability on the grounds of social efficiency.  Whereas this approach was necessary and effective in encouraging governors and legislators to pass enabling legislation at the state level, it was not sufficient to gain the support of Congress and the general public for a national standards initiative.  Talking about education as an investment in human capital made the reform sound sensible and prudent as a matter of general policy, but it was difficult to get people excited about this effort.

A Nation at Risk made a political appeal in a manner that was limited and not terribly effective.  Both the first President Bush and President Clinton used this strategy in trying to launch a national standards policy and both failed.  However in January, 2002, the second President Bush signed into law a wide-reaching piece of standards legislation passed with broad bipartisan support.

The title of this law explains the rhetorical shift involved in gaining approval for it:  The No Child Left Behind Act.  Listen to the language in the opening section of this act, which constitutes the most powerful accomplishment of the school standards movement:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by —

(1) ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards;

(2) meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools;

(3) closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children….

What we find here is a marriage of the standards movement and the civil rights movement.  From the former comes the focus on rigorous academic subjects, core curriculum for all students, and testing and accountability; from the latter comes the urgent call to remediate social inequality by enhancing educational opportunity.  The opening sentence captures both elements succinctly:  “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”

Choice 2.0:  A Parallel Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The school choice movement had a rhetorical problem that was similar in some ways to the one facing the standards movement ways, and the message of equal opportunity worked just as well for choice reformers as it did for standards reformers.  What was similar about the choice problem was the difficulty in selling choice as an exercise in effectiveness.  Chubb and Moe stressed that market-based schools are more effective than politics-based schools, but effectiveness alone is not the kind of issue that mobilizes the citizenry to support a major change in the way schools are structured.  That is particularly the case for the choice movement, since the proposed transformation was such a radical departure from the time-honored pattern of school governance established in the common school era.  Standards reformers were tinkering with curriculum and tests; choice reformers were attacking the democratic control of schools.  It is hard to win a political fight in the U.S. if you cede the pro-democracy position to your opponents.  Compounding the problem was the possibility that market-based schooling would exacerbate social inequality by allowing schools to segregate themselves along lines of class and race in response to consumer preferences.  If the possible benefits were defined only as greater school effectiveness and the possible costs were defined as a retreat from democracy and equality, then the battle for school choice looked hopeless.  A series of ballot failures in proposals for school vouchers seemed to confirm this judgment.

In the late 1990s, however, the politics of school choice became more complex with the introduction of a new rhetorical approach to the choice movement’s repertoire.  The key change was to introduce the issue of equity in addition to efficiency.  Adding equity changed the valence of the choice argument.  Instead of being seen as a threat to social equality, choice now could be presented as a way to spread social opportunity to the disadvantaged.  One account put the issue this way:

We have always had school choice in the United States, through the right of parents to send their child to a private school and through the ability of parents to pick a public school for their child by choosing where to live.  Clearly, affluent parents have typically been the main beneficiaries of these forms of school choice.

Another added the kicker:

We must give low-income and working-class parents the power to choose schools – public or private, nonsectarian or religious – where their children will succeed.  And we must give all schools the incentives to work to meet children’s needs.

This shift toward a rhetoric of equal opportunity dramatically changed the way the choice argument was received, and also it transformed the political complexion of the effort.  Once favored primarily by libertarians, economists, and free market Republicans, it was now able to pick up support from a variety of sectors.  Adding equal opportunity to the argument helped broaden the appeal of both the standards movement and the choice movement.

Developments since Publication of the Book

Let’s look at the changing landscape of education policy in the United States in the last half dozen years.  On the surface, the changes have been substantial.  In 2015, the federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the 2001 law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The latter had, for the first time, thrust the federal government directly into the realm of educational policy, which had traditionally been the responsibility of the 50 state governments.  It constituted the triumph of the movement for educational standards, which had been advancing at the state level since the 1980s.  NCLB compelled states to establish standards for the curriculum used in local schools and to hold schools accountable through state-wide tests that would assess how well student achievement was meeting these standards.  The policy was aimed at accomplishing two goals, to reduce the inequality of schooling available to students from different social and ethnic backgrounds and to promote economic development by raising the level of educational outcomes.  In the language of the book, the first was an expression of the social mobility goal and the second of the social efficiency goal.  I argue that these two goals, along with the democratic equality goal, have framed the politics of education in the U.S. throughout its history over the last 200 years.

ESSA was an effort to ameliorate some of the resistance that had developed to NCLB in the previous decade.  Some of the opposition came from the political right, which saw the law as an egregious intrusion on states’ rights.  Additional opposition came from the educational establishment, which was unhappy with the impact that rigid testing requirements had on the ability of school systems to carry out their work effectively.  ESSA softened the accountability requirements on states and provided greater latitude for state policymakers to craft their own approaches to meeting broad standards for both elevating student achievement and reducing the achievement gap.  At the same time that NCLB was stirring up resistance, so did the effort to develop a Common Core curriculum that would cut across state boundaries.  In response, the Common Core effort continued at the state level, but under conditions that gave more freedom for states to deal with this process on their own terms.

Then came the presidential election and a dramatic change in educational policy that came with the election of Donald Trump.  In the new administration, the federal Department of Education shifted dramatically in favor of school choice, putting its weight behind charter schools and school vouchers.  It also loosened the restrictions on for-profit higher education that had been imposed by the Obama administration.

These policy changes had more impact on the surface of the American educational system than on its core.  Education remains primarily a function under the control of state and local government.  And the basic structure of the system, as spelled out in my book, remains largely the same.  The consumer is still king in shaping the dynamics of the system of schooling at all levels, with government policy playing a secondary role.


This has been a story about the changing rhetoric of American educational reform.  We have seen a transition from a political vision to a market vision of education, from a focus on education as a way to create citizens for an emerging republic to a focus on education as a way to allow citizens to get ahead in a market society.  During this century and a half, however, we have not seen the political argument for education disappear.  Instead, we have seen it become transformed from the argument that education promotes civic virtue among citizens to the argument that education promotes social mobility among consumers.  In the latter form, the political vision of education has retained a strong rhetorical presence in the language of educational reform.  Yet the persistence of a political argument for education has come at a cost.  Gone is the notion that schools exist to promote civic virtue for the preservation of a republican community; in its place is the notion that schools exist to give all consumers access to a valuable form of educational property.  This is a political vision of a very different sort, which transforms education from a public good to a private good, and from a source of political community to a source of economic opportunity.  By undermining education as a public good and empowering educational consumers, this privatized and pragmatic vision of the American school system is directly at odds with the public and communitarian vision of Horace Mann.


Posted in Education policy, Scholarship, School reform, Social Programs, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Theory

Peter Rossi: The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules

This post is a classic paper by Peter Rossi from 1987 (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 4, pages 3-20) which addresses a chronic problem in all policy efforts to change complex social systems.  The social organizations of modern life are so large, so complex, so dependent on the cooperation of so many actors and agencies that making measurable changes in these organizations of the kind intended by the policymakers is fiendishly difficult.  These problems become particularly visible through the process of program evaluation.  As a result, Rossi comes up with a set of “laws” that govern the evaluation process.

The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.

The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.

The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will be zero.

The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.

Read this lovely piece and you will get a rich sense of how hard it is to design policies that will effect the kind of change that the policies aims to accomplish.  Social organizations have a life of their own whose momentum is difficult to deflect.

Here’s a link to the original paper.


Peter H. Rossi


Evaluations of social programs have a long history, as history goes in the
social sciences, but it has been only in the last two decades that evaluation
has come close to becoming a routine activity that is a functioning part of
the policy formation process. Evaluation research has become an activity
that no agency administering social programs can do without and still
retain a reputation as modern and up to date. In academia, evaluation
research has infiltrated into most social science departments as an integral
constituent of curricula. In short, evaluation has become institutionalized.
There are many benefits to social programs and to the social sciences
from the institutionalization of evaluation research. Among the more
important benefits has been a considerable increase in knowledge concerning
social problems and about how social programs work (and do not
work). Along with these benefits. however, there have also been attached
some losses. For those concerned with the improvement of the lot of
disadvantaged persons, families and social groups, the resulting knowledge
has provided the bases for both pessimism and optimism. On the
pessimistic side, we ha\e learned that designing successful programs is a
difficult task that is not easily or often accomplished. On the optimistic
side, we have learned more and more about the kinds of programs that can
be successfully designed and implemented. Knowledge derived from evaluations
is beginning to guide our judgments concerning what is feasible
and how to reach those feasible goals.

To draw some important implications from this knowledge about the
workings of social programs is the objective of this paper. The first step is
to formulate a set of “laws” that summarize the major trends in evaluation
findings. Next. a set of explanations arc provided for those overall findings.
Finally, we explore the consequences for applied social science activities
that flow from our new knowledge of social programs.


A dramatic but slightly overdrawn view of two decades of evaluation
efforts can be stated as a set of “laws,” each summarizing some strong
tendency that can be discerned in that body of materials. Following a 19th
Century practice that has fallen into disuse in social science. these laws
are named after substances of varying durability. roughly indexing each
law’s robustness.

The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.

The Iron Law arises from the experience that few impact assessments
of large scale social programs have found that the programs in question
had any net impact. The law also means that. based on the evaluation
efforts of the las twenty years. the best a priori estimate of the net impact
assessment of any program is zero, i.e., that the the program will have no

The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting
estimate of net impact to be zero.

This law means that the more technically rigorous the net impact
assessment. the more likely arc its results to be zero–ur no effect.
Specifically, this law implies that estimating net impacts through randomized
controlled experiments, the avowedly best approach to estimating
nd impacts. is more likely to show zero effects than other less
rigorous approaches.

The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed
to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will
be zero.

This law means that social programs designed to rehabilitate individuals
by changing them in some way or another are more likely to fail. The
Brass Law may appear to be redundant since all programs, including those
designed to deal with individuals, are covered by the Iron Law. This
redundancy is intended to emphasize the especially difficult task faced in
designing and implementing effective programs that are designed to rehabilitate

The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.

Of the several metallic laws of evaluation, the zinc law has the most
optimistic slant since it implies that there are effective programs but that
such effective programs are never evaluated. It also implies that if a social
program is effective, that characteristic is obvious enough and hence
policy makers and others who sponsor and fund evaluations decide
against evaluation.

It is possible to formulate a number of additional laws of evaluation,
each attached to one or another of a variety of substances varying in
strength ranging from strong, robust metals to flimsy materials. The substances
involved are only limited by one’s imagination. But, if such laws
are to mirror the major findings of the last two decades of evaluation
research they would all carry the same message: The laws would claim
that a review of the history of the last two decades of efforts to evaluate
major social programs in the United States sustain the proposition that
over this period the American establishment of policy makers, agency
officials, professionals and social scientists did not know how to design
and implement social programs that were minimally effective, let alone
spectacularly so.


How seriously should we take the metallic laws? Are they simply the
social science analogue of poetic license, intended to provide dramatic
emphasis? Or, do the laws accurately summarize the last two decades’
evaluation experiences?

First of all, viewed against the evidence, the iron law is not entirely
rigid. True, most impact assessments conform to the iron law’s dictates in
showing at best marginal effects and all too often no effects at all. There
are even a few evaluations that have shown effects in the wrong directions,
opposite to the desired effects. Some of the failures of large scale programs
have been particularly disappointing because of the large investments
of time and resources involved: Manpower retraining programs
have not been shown to improve earnings or employment prospects of
participants (Westat, 1976-1980). Most of the attempts to rehabilitate pris-
oners have failed to reduce recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks, 1975).
Most educational innovations have not been shown to improve student
learning appreciably over traditional methods (Raizen and Rossi, 1981 ).

But, there are also many exceptions to the iron rule! The “iron” in the
Iron Law has shown itself to be somewhat spongy and therefore easily,
although not frequently, broken. Some social programs have shown
positive effects in the desired directions, and there are even some quite
spectacular successes: the American old age pension system plus Medicare
has dramatically improved the lives of our older citizens. Medicaid
has managed to deliver medical services to the poor to the extent that the
negative correlation between income and consumption of medical services
has declined dramatically since enactment. The family planning
clinics subsidized by the federal government were effective in reducing the
number of births in areas where they were implemented (Cutright and
Jaffe, 1977). There are also human services programs that have been shown
to be effective, although mainly on small scale, pilot runs: for example, the
Minneapolis Police Foundation experiment on the police handling of
family violence showed that if the police placed the offending abuser in
custody over night that the offender was less likely to show up as an
accused offender over the succeeding six months ( Sherman and Berk, 1984 ).
A meta-evaluation of psychotherapy showed that on the average, persons
in psychotherapy-no matter what brand-were a third of a standard
deviation improved over control groups that did not have any therapy
(Smith, Glass, and Miller, 1980). In most of the evaluations of manpower
training programs, women returning to the labor force benefitted
positively compared to women who did not take the courses, even though
in general such programs have not been successful. Even Head Start is
now beginning to show some positive benefits after many years of equivocal
findings. And so it goes on, through a relatively long list of successful

But even in the case of successful social programs, the sizes of the net
effects have not been spectacular. In the social program field, nothing has
yet been invented which is as effective in its way as the small pox vaccine
was for the field of public health. In short, as is well known (and widely
deplored) we arc not on the verge of wiping out the social scourges of our
time: ignorance, poverty, crime, dependency, or mental illness show great
promise to be with us for some time to come.

The Stainless Steel Law appears to be more likely to hold up over a
The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules 7
large series of cases than the more general Iron Law. This is because the
fiercest competition as an explanation for the seeming success of any
program-especially human services programs-ordinarily is either selfor
administrator-selection of clients. In other words, if one finds that a
program appears to be effective, the most likely alternative explanation to
judging the program as the cause of that success is that the persons
attracted to that program were likely to get better on their own or that the
administrators of that program chose those who were already on the road
to recovery as clients. As the better research designs-particularly randomized
experiments-eliminate that competition, the less likely is a
program to show any positive net effect. So the better the research design,
the more likely the net impact assessment is likely to be zero.

How about the Zinc Law of Evaluation? First, it should be pointed out
that this law is impossible to verify in any literal sense. The only way that
one can be relatively certain that a program is effective is to evaluate it,
and hence the proposition that only ineffective programs are evaluated can
never be proven.

However, there is a sense in which the Zinc law is correct. If the a
priori, beyond-any-doubt expectations of decision makers and agency
heads is that a program will be effective, there is little chance that the
program will be evaluated at all. Our most successful social program,
social security payments to the aged has never been evaluated in a rigorous
sense. It is “well known” that the program manages to raise the incomes
of retired persons and their families, and “it stands to reason” that this
increase in income is greater than what would have happened, absent the
social security system.

Evaluation research is the legitimate child of skepticism, and where
there is faith, research is not called upon to make a judgment. Indeed, the
history of the income maintenance experiments bears this point out.
Those experiments were not undertaken to find out whether the main
purpose of the proposed program could be achieved: that is, no one
doubted that payments would provide income to poor people-indeed,
payments by definition are income, and even social scientists are not
inclined to waste resources investigating tautologies. Furthermore, no one
doubted that payments could be calculated and checks could be delivered
to households. The main purpose of the experiment was to estimate the
sizes of certain anticipated side effects of the payments, about which
economists and policy makers were uncertain-how much of a work
disincentive effect would be generated by the payments and whether the
payments would affect other aspects of the households in undesirable
ways-for instance, increasing the divorce rate among participants.

In short, when we look at the evidence for the metallic laws, the
evidence appears not to sustain their seemingly rigid character, but the
evidence does sustain the “laws” as statistical regularities. Why this
should be the case, is the topic to be explored in the remainder of this


A possibility that deserves very serious consideration is that there is
something radically wrong with the ways in which we go about conducting
evaluations. Indeed, this argument is the foundation of a revisionist school
of evaluation, composed of evaluators who are intent on calling into
question the main body of methodological procedures used in evaluation
research, especially those that emphasize quantitative and particularly
experimental approaches to the estimation of net impacts. The revisionists
include such persons as Michael Patton ( 1980) and Egon Guba (1981 ).
Some of the revisionists are reformed number crunchers who have seen
the errors of their ways and have been reborn as qualitative researchers.
Others have come from social science disciplines in which qualitative
ethnographic field methods have been dominant.

Although the issue of the appropriateness of social science methodology
is an important one, so far the revisionist arguments fall far short
of being fully convincing. At the root of the revisionist argument appears
to be that the revisionists find it difficult to accept the findings that most
social programs, when evaluated for impact assessment by rigorous quantitative
evaluation procedures, fail to register main effects: hence the
defects must be in the method of making the estimates. This argument per
se is an interesting one, and deserves attention: all procedures need to be
continually re-evaluated. There are some obvious deficiencies in most
evaluations, some of which are inherent in the procedures employed. For
example, a program that is constantly changing and evolving cannot
ordinarily be rigorously evaluated since the treatment to be evaluated
cannot be clearly defined. Such programs either require new evaluation
procedures or should not be evaluated at all.

The weakness of the revisionist approaches lies in their proposed
solutions to these deficiencies. Criticizing quantitative approaches for
their woodenness and inflexibility, they propose to replace current methods
with procedures that have even greater and more obvious deficiencies.
The qualitative approaches they propose are not exempt from issues of
internal and external validity and ordinarily do not attempt to address
these thorny problems. Indeed, the procedures which they advance as
substitutes for the mainstream methodology are usually vaguely des-
scribed, constituting an almost mystical advocacy of the virtues of qualitative
approaches, without clear discussion of the specific ways in which
such procedures meet validity criteria. In addition, many appear to adopt
program operator perspectives on effectiveness, reasoning that any effort
to improve social conditions must have some effect, with the burden of
proof placed on the evaluation researcher to find out what those effects
might be.

Although many of their arguments concerning the woodenness of many
quantitative researches are cogent and well taken, the main revisionist
arguments for an alternative methodology are unconvincing: hence one
must look elsewhere than to evaluation methodology for the reasons for
the failure of social programs to pass muster before the bar of impact


Starting with the conviction that the many findings of zero impact are real,
we are led inexorably to the conclusion that the faults must lie in the
programs. Three kinds of failure can be identified, each a major source of
the observed lack of impact:
The first two types of faults that lead a program to fail stem from
problems in social science theory and the third is a problem in the
organization of social programs:

I. Faults in Problem Theory: The program is built upon a faulty understanding
of the social processes that give rise to the problem to
which the social program is ostensibly addressed;

2. Faults in Program Theory: The program is built upon a faulty
understanding of how to translate problem theory into specific

3. Faults in Program Implementation: There are faults in the organizations,
resources levels and/or activities that are used to deliver
the program to its intended beneficiaries.

Note that the term theory is used above in a fairly loose way to cover all
sorts of empirically grounded generalized knowledge about a topic, and is
not limited to formal propositions.

Every social program, implicitly or explicitly is based on some understanding
of the social problem involved and some understanding of the
program. If one fails to arrive at an appropriate understanding of either,
the program in question will undoubtedly fail. In addition, every program
is given to some organization to implement. Failures to provide enough
resources, or to insure that the program is delivered with sufficient fidelity
can also lead to findings of ineffectiveness.

Problem Theory

Problem theory consists of the body of empirically tested understanding
of the social problem that underlies the design of the program in
question. For example, the problem theory that was the underpinning for
the many attempts at prisoner rehabilitation tried in the last two decades
was that criminality was a personality disorder. Even though there was a
lot of evidence for this viewpoint, it also turned out that the theory is not
relevant either to understanding crime rates or to the design of crime
policy. The changes in crime rates do not reflect massive shifts in personality
characteristics of the American population, nor does the personality
disorder theory of crime lead to clear implications for crime reduction
policies. Indeed, it is likely that large scale personality changes are beyond
the reach of social policy institutions in a democratic society.
The adoption of this theory is quite understandable. For example, how
else do we account for the fact that persons seemingly exposed to the
same influences do not show the same criminal (or noncriminal) tendencies?
But the theory is not useful for understanding the social distribution
of crime rates by gender, socio-economic level, or by age.

Program Theory

Program theory links together the activities that constitute a social
program and desired program outcomes. Obviously, program theory is
also linked to problem theory, but is partially independent. For example,
given the problem theory that diagnosed criminality is a personality disorder,
a matching program theory would have as its aims personality
change oriented therapy. But there are many specific ways in which
therapy can be defined and at many different points in the life history of
individuals. At the one extreme of the lifeline, one might attempt preventive
mental health work directed toward young children: at the other
extreme, one might provide psychiatric treatment for prisoners or set up
therapeutic groups in prison for convicted offenders.


The third major source of failure is organizational in character and has
to do with the failure to implement properly programs. Human services
programs are notoriously difficult to deliver appropriately to the appropriate
clients. A well designed program that is based on correct problem and
program theories may simply be implemented improperly, including not
implementing any program at all. Indeed, in the early days of the War on
Proverty, many examples were found of non-programs-the failure to
implement anything at all.

Note that these three sources of failure are nested to some degree:

1. An incorrect understanding of the social problem being addressed
is clearly a major failure that invalidates a correct program theory
and an excellent implementation.

2. No matter how good the problem theory may be, an inappropriate
program theory will lead to failure.

3. And, no matter how good the problem and program theories, a
poor implementation will also lead to failure.

Sources of Theory Failure

A major reason for failures produced through incorrect problem and
program theories lies in the serious under-development of policy related
social science theories in many of the basic disciplines. The major problem
with much basic social science is that social scientists have tended to
ignore policy related variables in building theories because policy related
variables account for so little of the variance in the behavior in question.It
does not help the construction of social policy any to know that a major
determinant of criminality is age, because there is little, if anything, that
policy can do about the age distribution of a population, given a committment
to our current democratic, liberal values. There are notable exceptions
to this generalization about social science: economics and political
science have always been closely attentive to policy considerations; this
indictment concerns mainly such fields as sociology, anthropology and

Incidentally, this generalization about social science and social scientists
should warn us not to expect too much from changes in social policy.
This implication is quite important and will be taken up later on in this

But the major reason why programs fail through failures in problem and
program theories is that the designers of programs are ordinarily amateurs
who know even less than the social scientists! There are numerous examples
of social programs that were concocted by well meaning amateurs
(but amateurs nevertheless). A prime example are Community Mental
Health Centers, an invention of the Kennedy administration, apparently
undertaken without any input from the National Institute of Mental
Health, the agency that was given the mandate to administer the program.
Similarly with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and
its successor, the current Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA) program,
both of which were designed by rank amateurs and then given over to the
Department of Labor to run and administer. Of course, some of the
amateurs were advised by social scientists about the programs in question,
so the social scientists are not completely blameless.

The amateurs in question are the legislators, judicial officials, and other
policy makers who initiate policy and program changes. The main problem
with amateurs lies not so much in their amateur status but in the fact
that they may know little or nothing about the problem in question or
about the programs they design. Social science may not be an extraordinarily
well developed set of disciplines, but social scientists do know
something about our society and how it works, knowledge that can prove
useful in the design of policy and programs that may have a chance to be
successfully effective.

Our social programs seemingly are designed by procedures that lie
somewhere in between setting monkeys to typing mindlessly on typewriters
in the hope that additional Shakespearean plays will eventually be
produced, and Edisonian trial-and-error procedures in which one tactic
after another is tried in the hope of finding out some method that works.
Although the Edisonian paradigm is not highly regarded as a scientific
strategy by the philosophers of science, there is much to recommend it in
a historical period in which good theory is yet to develop. It is also a
strategy that allows one to learn from errors. Indeed, evaluation is very
much a part of an Edisonian strategy of starting new programs, and
attempting to learn from each trial.


One of the more persistent failures in problem theory is to under-estimate
the complexity of the social world. Most of the social problems with which
we deal are generated by very complex causal processes involving interactions
of a very complex sort among societal level, community level, and
individual level processes. In all likelihood there are biological level processes
involved as well, however much our liberal ideology is repelled by
the idea. The consequence of under-estimating the complexity of the
problem is often to over-estimate our abilities to affect the amount and
course of the problem. This means that we are overly optimistic about how
much of an effect even the best of social programs can expect to achieve. It
also means that we under-design our evaluations, running the risk of
committing Type II errors: that is, not having enough statistical power in
our evaluation research designs to be able to detect reliably those small
effects that we are likely to encounter.

It is instructive to consider the example of the problem of crime in our
society. In the last two decades, we have learned a great deal about the
crime problem through our attempts by initiating one social program aft~r
another to halt the rising crime rate in our society. The end result of this
series of trials has largely failed to have significant impacts on the crime
rates. The research effort has yielded a great deal of empirical knowledge
about crime and criminals. For example, we now know a great deal about
the demographic characteristics of criminals and their victims. But, we
still have only the vaguest ideas about why the crime rates rose so steeply
in the period between 1970 and 1980 and, in the last few years, have started
what appears to be a gradual decline. We have also learned that the
criminal justice system has been given an impossible task to perform and,
indeed, practices a wholesale form of deception in which everyone acquiesces.

It has been found that most perpetrators of most criminal acts go
undetected, when detected go unprosecuted, and when prosecuted go
unpunished, Furthermore, most prosecuted and sentenced criminals are
dealt with by plea bargaining procedures that are just in the last decade
getting formal recognition as occurring at all. After decades of sub-rosa
existence, plea bargaining is beginning to get official recognition in the
criminal code and judicial interpretations of that code.

But most of what we have learned in the past two decades amounts to a
better description of the crime problem and the criminal justice system as
it presently functions. There is simply no doubt about the importance of
this detailed information: it is going to be the foundation of our understanding
of crime; but, it is not yet the basis upon which to build policies
and programs that can lessen the burden of crime in our society.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the descriptive and
evaluative researches of the past two decades is that crime and criminals
appear to be relatively insensitive to the range of policy and program
changes that have been evaluated in this period. This means that the
prospects for substantial improvements in the crime problem appear to be
slight, unless we gain better theoretical understanding of crime and criminals.
That is why the Iron Law of Evaluation appears to be an excellent
generalization for the field of social programs aimed at reducing crime and
leading criminals to the straight and narrow way of life. The knowledge
base for developing effective crime policies and programs simply does not
exist; and hence in this field, we are condemned-hopefully temporarilyto
Edisonian trial and error.


As defined earlier, program theory failures are translations of a proper
understanding of a problem into inappropriate programs, and program
implementation failures arise out of defects in the delivery system used.
Although in principle it is possible to distinguish program theory failures
from program implementation failures, in practice it is difficult to do so.
For example, a correct program may be incorrectly delivered, and hence
would constitute a “pure” example of implementation failure, but it would
be difficult to identify this case as such, unless there were some instances
of correct delivery. Hence both program theory and program implementation
failures will be discussed together in this section.

These kinds of failure are likely the most common causes of ineffective
programs in many fields. There are many ways in which program theory
and program implementation failures can occur. Some of the more common
ways are listed below.

Wrong Treatment

This occurs when the treatment is simply a seriously flawed translation
of the problem theory into a program. One of the best examples is the
housing allowance experiment in which the experimenters attempted to
motivate poor households to move into higher quality housing by offering
them a rent subsidy, contingent on their moving into housing that met
certain quality standards (Struyk and Bendick, 1981). The experimenters
found that only a small portion of the poor households to whom this offer
was made actually moved to better housing and thereby qualified for and
received housing subsidy payments. After much econometric calculation,
this unexpected outcome was found to have been apparently generated by
the fact that the experimenters unfortunately did not take into account
that the costs of moving were far from zero. When the anticipated dollar
benefits from the subsidy were compared to the net benefits, after taking
into account the costs of moving, the net benefits were in a very large
proportion of the cases uncomfortably close to zero and in some instances
negative. Furthermore, the housing standards applied almost totally
missed the point. They were technical standards that often characterized
housing as sub-standard that was quite acceptable to the households
involved. In other words, these were standards that were regarded as
irrelevant by the clients. It was unreasonable to assume that households
would undertake to move when there was no push of dissatisfaction from
the housing occupied and no substantial net positive benefit in dollar
terms for doing so. Incidentally, the fact that poor families with little
formal education were able to make decisions that were consistent with
the outcomes of highly technical econometric calculations improves one’s
appreciation of the innate intellectual abilities of that population.

Right Treatment But Insufficient Dosage

A very recent set of trial policing programs in Houston, Texas and
Newark, New Jersey exemplifies how programs may fail not so much
because they were administering the wrong treatment but because the
treatment was frail and puny (Police Foundation, 1985). Part of the goals of
the program was to produce a more positive evaluation of local police
departments in the views of local residents. Several different treatments
were attempted. In Houston, the police attempted to meet the presumed
needs of victims of crime by having a police officer call them up a week of
so after a crime complaint was received to ask “how they were doing” and
to offer help in “any way.” Over a period of a year, the police managed to
contact about 230 victims, but the help they could offer consisted mainly
of referrals to other agencies. Furthermore, the crimes in question were
mainly property thefts without personal contact between victims and
offenders, with the main request for aid being requests to speed up the
return of their stolen property. Anyone who knows even a little bit about
property crime in the United States would know that the police do little or
nothing to recover stolen property mainly because there is no way they can
do so. Since the callers from the police department could not offer any
substantial aid to remedy the problems caused by the crimes in question,
the treatment delivered by the program was essentially zero. It goes
without saying that those contacted by the police officers did not differ
from randomly selected controls-who had also been victimized but who
had not been called by the police-in their evaluation of the Houston
Police Department.

It seems likely that the treatment administered, namely expressions of
concern for the victims of crime, administered in a personal face-to-face
way, would have been effective if the police could have offered substantial
help to the victims.

Counter-acting Delivery System

It is obvious that any program consists not only of the treatment
intended to be delivered, but it also consists of the delivery system and
whatever is done to clients in the delivery of services. Thus the income
maintenance experiments’ treatments consist not only of the payments,
but the entire system of monthly income reports required of the clients,
the quarterly interviews and the annual income reviews, as well as the
payment system and its rules. In that particular case, it is likely that the
payments dominated the payment system, but in other cases that might
not be so, with the delivery system profoundly altering the impact of the

Perhaps the most egregious example was the group counselling program
run in California prisons during the 1960s (Kassebaum, Ward, and
Wilner, 1972). Guards and other prison employees were used as counseling
group leaders, in sessions in which all participants-prisoners and
guards-were asked to be frank and candid with each other! There are
many reasons for the abysmal failure3 of this program to affect either
criminals’ behavior within prison or during their subsequent period of
parole, but among the leading contenders for the role of villain was the
prison system’s use of guards as therapists.

Another example is the failure of transitional aid payments to released
prisoners when the payment system was run by the state employment
security agency, in contrast to the strong positive effect found when run by
researchers (Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). In a randomized experiment
run by social researchers in Baltimore, the provision of 3 months of
minimal support payments lowered the re-arrest rate by 8 percent, a small
decrement, but a significant one that was calculated to have very high cost
to benefit ratios. When, the Department of Labor wisely decided that
another randomized experiment should be run to see whether YOAA”
Your Ordinary American Agency”-could achieve the same results,
large scale experiments in Texas and Georgia showed that putting the
treatment in the hands of the employment security agencies in those two
states cancelled the positive effects of the treatment. The procedure which
produced the failure was a simple one: the payments were made contingent
on being unemployed, as the employment security agencies usually
administered unemployment benefits, creating a strong work disincentive
effect with the unfortunate consequence of a longer period of unemployment
for experimentals as compared to their randomized controls and
hence a higher than expected re-arrest rate.

Pilot and Production Runs

The last example can be subsumed under a more general point — namely,
given that a treatment is effective in a pilot test does not mean that
when turned over to YOAA, effectiveness can be maintained. This is the
lesson to be derived from the transitional aid experiments in Texas and
Georgia and from programs such as The Planned Variation teaching demonstration.
In the latter program leading teaching specialists were asked to
develop versions of their teaching methods to be implemented in actual
school systems. Despite generous support and willing cooperation from
their schools, the researchers were unable to get workable versions of
their teaching strategies into place until at least a year into the running of
the program. There is a big difference between running a program on a
small scale with highly skilled and very devoted personnel and running a
program with the lesser skilled and less devoted personnel that YOAA
ordinarily has at its disposal. Programs that appear to be very promising
when run by the persons who developed them, often turn out to be
disappointments when turned over to line agencies.

Inadequate Reward System

The internally defined reward system of an organization has a strong
effect on what activities are assiduously pursued and those that are
characterized by “benign neglect.” The fact that an agency is directed to
engage in some activity does not mean that it will do so unless the reward
system within that organization actively fosters compliance. Indeed, there
are numerous examples of reward systems that do not foster compliance.
Perhaps one of the best examples was the experience of several police
departments with the decriminalization of public intoxification. Both the
District of Columbia and Minneapolis-among other jurisdictions-rescinded
their ordinances that defined public drunkenness as misdemeanors,
setting up detoxification centers to which police were asked to
bring persons who were found to be drunk on the streets. Under the old
system, police patrols would arrest drunks and bring them into the local
jail for an overnight stay. The arrests so made would “count” towards the
department measures of policing activity. Patrolmen were motivated
thereby to pick up drunks and book them into the local jail, especially in
periods when other arrest opportunities were slight. In contrast, under the
new system, the handling of drunks did not count towards an officer’s
arrest record. The consequence: Police did not bring drunks into the new
detoxification centers and the municipalities eventually had to set up
separate service systems to rustle up clients for the dextoxification

The illustrations given above should be sufficient to make the general
point that the apropriate implementation of social programs is a problematic
matter. This is especially the case for programs that rely on persons to
deliver the service in question. There is no doubt that federal, state, and
local agencies can calculate and deliver checks with precision and efficiency.
There also can be little doubt that such agencies can maintain a
physical infra-structure that delivers public services efficiently, even
though there are a few examples of the failure of water and sewer systems
on scales that threaten public health. But there is a lot of doubt that human
services that are tailored to differences among individual clients can be
done well at all on a large scale basis.
We know that public education is not doing equally well in facilitating
the learning of all children. We know that our mental health system does
not often succeed in treating the chronically mentally ill in a consistent
and effective fashion. This does not mean that some children cannot be
educated or that the chronically mentally ill cannot be treated-it does
mean that our ability to do these activities on a mass scale is somewhat in


This paper started out with a recital of the several metallic laws stating
that evaluations of social programs have rarely found them to be effective
in achieving their desired goals. The discussion modified the metallic laws
to express them as statistical tendencies rather than rigid and inflexible
laws to which all evaluations must strictly adhere. In this latter sense, the
laws simply do not hold. However, when stripped of their rigidity, the laws
can be seen to be valid as statistical generalizations, fairly accurately
representing what have been the end results of evaluations “on-the-average.”
In short, few large-scale social programs have been found to be even
minimally effective. There have been even fewer programs found to be spectacularly
effective. There are no social science equivalents of the Salk vaccine.

Were this conclusion the only message of this paper, then it would tell a
dismal tale indeed. But there is a more important message in the examination
of the reasons why social programs fail so often. In this connection,
the paper pointed out two deficiencies:

First, policy relevant social science theory that should be the intellectual
underpinning of our social policies and programs is either deficient or
simply missing. Effective social policies and programs cannot be designed
consistently until it is thoroughly understood how changes in policies and
programs can affect the social problems in question. The social policies
and programs that we have tested have been designed, at best, on the basis
of common sense and perhaps intelligent guesses, a weak foundation for
the construction of effective policies and programs.

In order to make progress, we need to deepen our understanding of the
long range and proximate causation of our social problems and our understanding
about how active interventions might alleviate the burdens of
those problems. This is not simply a call for more funds for social science
research but also a call for a redirection of social science research toward
understanding how public policy can affect those problems.

Second, in pointing to the frequent failures in the implementation of
social programs, especially those that involve labor intensive delivery of
services, we may also note an important missing professional activity in
those fields. The physical sciences have their engineering counterparts;
the biological sciences have their health care professionals; but social
science has neither an engineering nor a strong clinical component. To be
sure, we have clinical psychology, education, social work, public administration,
and law as our counterparts to engineering, but these are only
weakly connected with basic social science. What is apparently needed is
a new profession of social and organizational engineering devoted to the
design of human services delivery systems that can deliver treatments
with fidelity and effectiveness.

In short, the double message of this paper is an argument for
further development of policy relevant basic social science and the establishment
of the new profession of social engineer.


I. Note that the law emphasizes that it applied primarily to “large scale” social
programs, primarily those that are implemented by an established governmental agency
covering a region or the nation as a whole. It does not apply to small scale demonstrations or to programs run by their designers.
2. Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to stop large scale programs even when evaluations prove them to be ineffective. The federal job training programs seem remarkably resistant to the almost consistent verdicts of ineffectiveness. This limitation on the Edisonian paradigm arises out of the tendency for large scale programs to accumulate staff and clients that have extensive stakes in the program’s continuation.
3. This is a complex example in which there are many competing explanations for the
failure of the program. In the first place, the program may be a good example of the failure of problem theory since the program was ultimately based on a theory of criminal behavior as psychopathology. In the second place, the program theory may have been at fault for employing counselling as a treatment. This example illustrates how difficult it is to separate out the three sources of program failures in specific instances.


Cutright, P. and F. S. Jaffe
1977 Impact of Family Planning Programs on Fertility: The U.S. Experience. New
York: Praeger.
Guba, E. G. and Y. S. Lincoln
1981 Effective Evaluation: Improving the Usefulness of Evaluation Results Through
Responsive and Naturalistic Approaches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kassebaum, G., D. Ward, and D. Wilner
1971 Prison Treatment and Parole Survival. New York: John Wiley.
Lipton, D., R. Martinson, and L. Wilks
1975 The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment. New York: Praeger.
Patton, M.
1980 Qualitative Evaluation Methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Police Foundation
1985 Evaluation of Newark and Houston Policing Experiments. Washington, DC.
Raizen, S. A. and P. H. Rossi (eds.)
1980 Program Evaluation in Education: When? How? To What Ends? Washington,
DC: National Academy Press.
Rossi, P. H., R. A. Berk and K. J. Lenihan
1980 Money, Work and Crime. New York: Academic.
Sherman, L. W. and R. A. Berk.
1984. “Deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault.” American Sociological Review
49: 261-271.
Smith, M. L., G. V. Glass, and T. I. Miller
1980 The Benefits of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Struyk, R. J. and M. Bendick
1981 Housing Vouchers for the Poor. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Westat, Inc.
1976- Continuous Longitudinal Manpower Survey, Reports 1-10. Rockville, MD:
1980 Westat, Inc.

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Education policy, History of education, School reform

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

This post is about an issue I’ve wrestled with for years, namely why reforming schools in the U.S. is so difficult.  I eventually wrote a book on the subject, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which was published in 2010.  But you may not need to read it if you look at this piece I did for Education Week back in 1999, which later appeared in a book called Lessons of a Century.  Here’s a link to the original.

Education Week Commentary

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

By David F. Labaree

May 19, 1999

One thing we have learned from examining the history of curriculum in the 20th century is that curriculum reform has had remarkably little effect on the character of teaching and learning in American classrooms. As the century draws to a close, it seems like a good time to think about why this has been the case.

The failure of curriculum reform was certainly not the result of a lack of effort. At various times during the last 100 years, reformers have: issued high-visibility reports proposing dramatic changes in the curriculum (Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918, A Nation at Risk in 1983); created whole new subject areas (social studies, vocational education, special education); sought to reorganize the curriculum around a variety of new principles (ability grouping, the project method, life adjustment, back to basics, inclusion, critical thinking); and launched movements to reinvent particular subjects (“New Math,” National Council of Teachers of Mathematics math, phonics, whole language).

In spite of all these reform efforts, the basic character of the curriculum that is practiced in American classrooms is strikingly similar to the form that predominated in the early part of the century. As before, the curriculum continues to revolve around traditional academic subjects–which we cut off from practical everyday knowledge, teach in relative isolation from one another, differentiate by ability, sequence by age, ground in textbooks, and deliver in a teacher-centered classroom. So much effort and so little result.

How can we understand this problem? For starters, we can recognize that curriculum means different things at different levels in the educational system, and that curriculum reform has had the greatest impact at the level most remote from teaching and learning in the classroom. Starting at the top of the system and moving toward the bottom, there is the rhetorical curriculum (ideas put forward by educational leaders, policymakers, and professors about what curriculum should be, as embodied in reports, speeches, and college texts), the formal curriculum (written curriculum policies put in place by school districts and embodied in curriculum guides and textbooks), the curriculum-in-use (the content that teachers actually teach in individual classrooms), and the received curriculum (the content that students actually learn in these classrooms).

Each wave of reform dramatically transforms the rhetorical curriculum, by changing the way educational leaders talk about the subject. This gives the feeling that something is really happening, but most often it’s not. Sometimes the reform moves beyond this stage and begins to shape the formal curriculum, getting translated into district-level curriculum frameworks and the textbooks approved for classroom use. Yet this degree of penetration does not guarantee that reform ideas will have an observable effect on the curriculum-in-use. More often than not, teachers respond to reform rhetoric and local curriculum mandates by making only marginal changes in the way they teach subjects. They may come to talk about their practice using the new reform language, but only rarely do they make dramatic changes in their own curriculum practice. And even the rare cases when teachers bring their teaching in line with curriculum reform do not necessarily produce a substantial change in the received curriculum. What students learn is frequently quite different from what the reformers intended. For as curriculum-reform initiatives trickle down from the top to the bottom of the educational system, their power and coherence dissipate, with the result that student learning is likely to show few signs of the outcomes promoted by the original reform rhetoric. As David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban show in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, the dominant pattern is one of recurring waves of reform rhetoric combined with glacial change in educational practice.

Why has this pattern persisted for so long? Consider a few enduring characteristics of American education that have undermined the impact of curriculum reform on teaching and learning.

Conflicting Goals: One factor is conflict over the goals of education itself. Different curriculum reforms embody different goals. Some promote democratic equality, by seeking to provide all children with the skills and knowledge they will need to function as competent citizens. Others promote social efficiency, by seeking to provide different groups of children with the specific skills they need in order to be productive in the different kinds of jobs required in a complex economy. Still others promote social mobility, by providing individual students with educational advantages in the competition for the best social positions. One result is that reform efforts over time produce a pendulum swing between alternative conceptions of what children need to learn, leading to a sense that reform is both chronic (“steady work,” as Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin put it) and cyclical (the here-we-go-again phenomenon). Another result is the compromise structure of the curriculum itself, which embodies contradictory purposes and therefore is unable to accomplish any one of these purposes with any degree of effectiveness (the familiar sense of schools as trying to do too much while accomplishing too little).

Credentialing Over Learning: From the perspective of the social-mobility goal, the point of education is not to learn the curriculum but to accumulate the grades, credits, and degrees that provide an edge in competing for jobs. So when this goal begins to play an increasingly dominant role in shaping education–which has been the case during the 20th century in the United States–curriculum reforms come to focus more on sorting and selecting students and less on enhancing learning, more on form than substance. This turns curriculum into a set of labels for differentiating students rather than a body of knowledge that all children should be expected to master, and it erects a significant barrier to any curriculum reforms that take learning seriously.

A Curriculum That Works: Another factor that undermines efforts to reform the curriculum is the comfortable sense among influential people that the current course of study in schools works reasonably well. Middle- and upper-middle-class families have little reason to complain. After graduation, their children for the most part go on to find attractive jobs and live comfortable lives. Judging from these results, schools must be providing these students with an adequate fund of knowledge and skills, so they have little reason to push for curriculum reform as a top priority. In fact, such changes may pose a threat to the social success of these children by changing the rules of the game–introducing learning criteria that they may not be able to meet (such as through performance testing), or eliminating curriculum options that provide special advantage (such as the gifted program). Meanwhile, families at the lower end of the social-class system, who have less reason to be happy about the social consequences of schooling, are not in a powerful position to push for reform.

Preserving the Curriculum of a Real School: Curriculum reform can spur significant opposition from people at all levels of society if it appears to change one of the fundamental characteristics of what Mary Metz calls “real school.” Since all of us have extensive experience as students in school, we all have a strong sense of what makes up a school curriculum. To a significant extent, this curriculum is made up of the elements I mentioned earlier: academic subjects, which are cut off from practical everyday knowledge, taught in relative isolation from one another, stratified by ability, sequenced by age, grounded in textbooks, and delivered in a teacher-centered classroom. If this is our sense of what curriculum is like in a real school, then we are likely to object to any reforms that make substantial changes in any of these defining elements. This shared cultural understanding of the school curriculum exerts a profoundly conservative influence, by blocking program innovations even if they enhance learning and by providing legitimacy for programs that fit the traditional model even if they deter learning.

Preserving Real Teaching: This conservative view of the curriculum is also frequently shared by teachers. Prospective teachers spend an extended “apprenticeship of observation” (in Dan Lortie’s phrase) as students in the K-12 classroom, during which they observe teaching from the little seats and become imprinted with a detailed picture of what the teacher’s curriculum-in-use looks like. They can’t see the reasons that motivate the teacher’s curriculum choices. All they can see is the process, the routines, the forms. So it is not surprising that they bring to their own teaching a sense of curriculum that is defined by textbooks, disconnected categories of knowledge, and academic exercises. Teacher-preparation programs often try to offset the legacy of this apprenticeship by promoting the latest in curriculum-reform perspectives, but they are up against a massive accumulation of experience and sense impression that works to preserve the traditional curriculum.

Organizational Convenience: The traditional curriculum also persists in the face of curriculum-reform efforts because this curriculum is organizationally convenient for both teachers and administrators. It is convenient to focus on academic subjects, which are aligned with university disciplines, thus simplifying teacher preparation. It is convenient to have a curriculum that is differentiated, which allows teachers to specialize. It is convenient to stratify studies by ability and age, which facilitates classroom management by allowing teachers to teach to the whole class at one level rather than adapt the curriculum to the individual needs of learners. It is convenient to ground teaching in textbooks, which reduce the demands on teacher expertise while also reducing the time commitment required for a teacher to develop her own curriculum materials. And it is convenient to run a teacher-centered classroom, which reinforces the teacher’s control and which also simplifies curriculum planning and student monitoring. Curriculum-reform efforts are hard to sell and even more difficult to sustain if they can only succeed if teachers have special capacities, such as: extraordinary subject-matter expertise; the time, will, and skill required to develop their own curriculum materials; the ability to teach widely divergent students effectively; and the ability to maintain control over these students while allowing them freedom to learn on their own.

Loose Coupling of School Systems: Another factor that undercuts the effectiveness of curriculum reform is the loosely coupled nature of American school systems. School administrators exert a lot of control over such matters as personnel, budgets, schedules, and supplies, but they have remarkably little control over the actual process of instruction. In part, this is because teaching takes place behind closed doors, which means that only individual teachers really know the exact nature of the curriculum-in-use in their own classrooms. But in part, this is because administrators have little power to make teachers toe the line instructionally. Most managers can influence employee performance on the job by manipulating traditional mechanisms of fear and greed: Cross me and you’re fired; do the job the way I want, and I’ll offer you a promotion and a pay increase. School administrators can fire teachers only with the greatest difficulty, and pay levels are based on years of service and graduate credits, not job performance. The result is that teachers have considerably more autonomy in the way they perform their fundamental functions than do most employees. And this autonomy makes it hard for administrators to ensure that the formal curriculum becomes the curriculum-in-use in district classrooms.

Adaptability of the School System: Curriculum reform is also difficult to bring about because of another organizational characteristic of the American educational system: its adaptability. As Philip Cusick has shown, the system has a genius for incorporating curriculum change without fundamental reorganization. This happens in two related ways–formalism and segmentation. One is the way that teachers adopt the language and the feel of a reform effort without altering the basic way they do things.

The system is flexible about adopting curriculum forms as long as this doesn’t challenge the basic structure of curriculum practice. The other way is inherent in the segmented structure of the school curriculum. The differentiation of subjects frees schools to adopt new programs and courses by the simple process of addition. They can always tack on another segment in the already fragmented curriculum, because these additions require no fundamental restructuring of programs. For this reason, schools are quite tolerant of programs and courses that have contradictory goals. Live and let live is the motto. By abandoning any commitment to coherence of curriculum and compatibility of purpose, schools are able to incorporate new initiatives without forcing collateral changes. The result is that schools appear open to reform while effectively resisting real change.

Weak Link Between Teaching and Learning: Finally, let me return to the problem that faces any curriculum-reform effort in the last analysis, and that is trying to line up the received curriculum with the curriculum-in-use. The problem we confront here is the irreducible weakness of the link between teaching and learning. Even if teachers, against considerable odds, were to transform the curriculum they use in their classrooms to bring it in line with a reform effort, there is little to reassure us that the students in these classes would learn what the reform curriculum was supposed to convey. Students, after all, are willful actors who learn only what they choose to learn. Teachers can’t make learning happen; they can only create circumstances that are conducive to learning. Students may indeed choose to learn what is taught, they may also choose to learn something quite different, or they may decide to resist learning altogether. And their willingness to cooperate in the learning process is complicated further by the fact that they are present in the classroom under duress. The law says they have to attend school until they are 16 years old; the job market pressures them to stay in school even longer than that. But these forces guarantee only attendance, not engagement in the learning process. So this last crucial step in the chain of curriculum reform may be the most difficult one to accomplish in a reliable and predictable manner, since curriculum reform means nothing unless learning undergoes reform as well.

For all the reasons spelled out here, curriculum-reform movements over the course of the 20th century have produced a lot of activity but not very much real change in the curriculum that teachers use in classrooms or in the learning that students accomplish in these classrooms. But isn’t there reason to think that the situation I have described is now undergoing fundamental change? That real curriculum reform may now be on the horizon?

We currently have a substantial movement to set firm curriculum standards, one that is coming at us from all sides. Presidents Bush and Clinton have pushed in this direction; state departments of education are establishing curriculum frameworks for all the districts under their jurisdiction; and individual subject-matter groups have been working out their own sets of standards. This is something new in American educational history. And combined with the standards movement is a movement for systematic testing of what students know–particularly at the state level, but also at the local and federal levels. If in fact we are moving in the direction of a system in which high-stakes tests determine whether students have learned the material required by curriculum standards, this could bring about a more profound level of curriculum reform than we have ever before experienced. Isn’t that right?

Not necessarily. The move toward standards and testing would affect only one or two elements in the long list of factors that impede curriculum reform. If this movement is successful–which is a big if–it would indeed help tighten the links in a system of education that has long been loosely coupled. It might also have an impact on the problem of student motivation, by convincing at least some students (those who see the potential occupational benefit of education) that they need to study the curriculum in order to graduate and get a good job. But this movement has already run into substantial resistance from religious conservatives and supporters of school choice, and it goes against the grain of the deep-seated American tradition of local control of education. In addition, I don’t see how it would have a serious impact on any of the other factors that have for so long deflected efforts to reform the curriculum. Conflicting goals, the power of credentialing over learning, keeping a system that works, preserving the curriculum of the real school, organizational convenience, and system adaptability–all of these elements would be largely unaffected by the current initiatives for standards and testing.

The history of reform during the 20th century thus leaves us with a sobering conclusion: The American educational system seems likely to continue resisting efforts to transform the curriculum.

David F. Labaree, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, is the author of How To Succeed in School Without Really Learning and The Making of an American High School, both published by Yale University Press.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 42-44

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform


Posted in Education policy, Progressivism, School reform

How Dewey Lost

This week’s post is a piece I presented at a conference in Switzerland and then published in an obscure book in 2010.  Here’s the original version.

It’s a story about the contest for dominance in US education in the early 20th century between pedagogical and administrative progressivism, between John Dewey and a collection of figures such as Thorndike and Cubberley.  It’s about why, although Dewey may have won the heart of educators, he lost the fight for control of the structure and function of public schooling.  It focuses in particular on one of the strangest and most loathsome characters in the history of American education, David Snedden.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

            A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.

How Dewey Lost:

The Victory of David Snedden and Social Efficiency

in the Reform of American Education


David F. Labaree

In a book about the role of pragmatism in modernization, this paper provides a look
at one alternative set of ideas – social efficiency – which competed quite
successfully with John Dewey’s pragmatic vision for the heart of American
education. I approach this analysis as a sociologically oriented historian rather than
as a philosopher. From this perspective, the contest over competing visions of
schooling is not judged according to the rules that govern formal debate, such as
rigorous logic and solid evidence. Instead, reform ideas win or lose according to
the way they resonate with a particular social context, attract or repel particular
constituencies, and respond to the social problems that are seen as most salient at
the time. Ironically, the most successful reform ideas, as they become part of the
natural landscape of schooling, tend to lose their connection to the original author
and to disappear from view. In contrast, losing ideas tend to remain identified with
their creator and preserve their visibility, precisely because they are still outside the
walls of the school trying to find a way in. In this chapter I explore a particular
debate in the history of American education that demonstrates some of these
characteristics of educational ideas in school reform. Along the way, this analysis
tries to sort out why Dewey, America’s most enduringly visible educational
thinker, has had so little impact on the way schools work.

In 1977, the American academic journal Curriculum Inquiry devoted most of its spring issue to a debate about liberal and vocational education between John Dewey and David Snedden that took place 60 years earlier.  The issue included Snedden’s 1914 speech on the subject to the National Education Association and a series of pieces that were published The New Republic in the following year, including two articles by Dewey, Snedden’s response, and Dewey’s counter; Walter H. Drost, Snedden’s biographer, provided an analysis of the issues in the debate.  If readers of the journal were wondering why it was devoting all this space to the subject, an editorial explained that the concerns raised on both sides of the debate were emerging once again in the 1970s with the discussion of the latest incarnation of vocationalism known as “career education.”

To the contemporary eye, however, this does not look like much of a debate.  Dewey is arguably America’s greatest philosopher, educational thinker, and public intellectual, whereas Snedden is now largely forgotten.  As the latter’s biographer, Drost needed to revive the debate with Dewey in order to introduce Snedden to a modern audience and establish him as a once credible figure in the field.  And when we read the debate today, Snedden’s ideas come across as educationally narrow, politically conservative, and just plain odd.  He argued that “social economy” called for a system of vocational education that prepares the “rank and file” to become efficient “producers,” asserting that this form of schooling needs to be separated from liberal education, which – although its purposes “are as yet shrouded in the clouds of mysticism” – may still be useful for those who are going to be “utilizers.”  In contrast, Dewey’s ideas seem to resonate better with current political, social, and educational thinking.  He charged that Snedden’s system of “narrow trade training” leads to “social predestination” and argued instead for a broad vision of vocational education that has “as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.”

Dewey had the last word in the debate in The New Republic, and reading both sides today, he comes away from the exchange as the clear winner on points.  But if Dewey won the debate, it was Snedden who won the fight to set the broader aims of American education in the twentieth century.  The debate was followed quickly by two events that set the tone for educational system for the next 100 years – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), establishing a federal program of support for vocational education, and the issuance of the NEA report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918).  Both documents reflected key elements of the social efficiency vision that Snedden espoused and Dewey detested, a vision that has characterized schooling in the U.S. ever since.

In this chapter I seek to answer the question:  How could someone as utterly forgettable as David Snedden trounce the great John Dewey in the contest to define the shape and purpose of American education?  Drost is circumspect in judging his subject, but two reviewers of his biography of Snedden are less cautious in assessing the educator’s stature.  Willis Rudy put it this way:  “David Snedden, professor of educational administration, emerges from these pages as the very prototype of the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture.”[1]  Robert L. Church reviewed the Drost book in conjunction with a biography of Edward L. Thorndike titled The Sane Positivist, and in his view, “If Thorndike was a ‘sane positivist,’ perhaps we should brand David Snedden an ‘insane’ one.”[2]

I begin with a review of the major issues in Snedden’s debate with Dewey.  Then I examine Snedden’s career in the context of the larger educational reform movement for social efficiency and his growing marginalization just at the point when this movement emerged triumphant.  Since he is the unfamiliar character in the story, I focus my attention primarily on him rather than the world-famous Dewey.  Finally, I explore what we can learn about the history of school reform in the U.S. from the short-lived fame and lasting impact of a figure like Snedden.  I close with an analysis of why ideas like Dewey’s have more impact on educational thought than educational practice, and why the ideas of a figure like Snedden can win and then disappear into the grammar of schooling, leaving the author largely forgotten.

The Snedden-Dewey Debate

The exchange in The New Republic was triggered by an earlier debate about the meaning of liberal and vocational education which took place between Snedden and William C. Bagley at the annual meeting of the National Education Association.  At that point (July, 1914) Snedden was Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, while Bagley was a professor of education at University of Illinois.

Snedden began his speech stating that the world was changing and education must change with it.  Under these conditions, we could no longer rely on a general or liberal education, which was grounded in custom and a prescientific belief in its usefulness that bordered on “mysticism.”  Instead, he said, the public demanded a scientific form of vocational education.  The difference between the two is that a vocational education prepares people to be producers while a liberal education prepares them to be “utilizers” of what others produce.[3]

For students in the younger grades, a more efficient form of liberal education is appropriate, and this is also true for a small number of older students “who have the time and the inclination” (the future utilizers).  But for the large majority of students between the ages of 14 and 20 (those who will become producers), the focus should be on vocational education.  Since the purposes of vocational education differ greatly from those of liberal education, so too must the organizational form and curriculum content.  Vocational preparation needs to take place in separate schools, which “must, to a large extent, reproduce practical processes, must give the pupil many hours of each working day in actual practical work, and must closely correlate theoretical instruction to this practical work.”  As a result, “The vocational school should divest itself as completely as possible of the academic atmosphere, and should reproduce as fully as possible the atmosphere of economic endeavor in the field for which it trains.”  In addition, “the pedagogical methods to be employed must be those involving concentration, painstaking application to detail, and continuity of purpose,” and these need to be precisely tailored to the skill demands of each occupational specialty.[4]

In his response, Bagley rejected both Snedden’s diagnosis of the problem with education and his prescription for a cure.  He defended traditional liberal education against the charges made by his opponent, arguing that “The evidence for these sweeping indictments has, as far as I know, never been presented,”[5] and he asserted that Snedden’s distinction between education for production and utilization merely reproduced the old discredited distinction between education for gentlemen of leisure and education for workers.  At the end he warned about “the danger of social stratification…inherent in separate vocational schools.”[6]

Dewey, who was working on Democracy and Education at the time, felt the need to develop his own response to Snedden, one that did not incorporate Bagley’s academic essentialism, his defense of traditional liberal education, and his suspicion of all kinds of progressive educational reform.  So he wrote a series of two articles for The New Republic on industrial education.  The discussion, which never referred to Snedden by name, was relatively mild and indirect, including a long and opaque discussion of a law promoting vocational education in Indiana.  He made two main arguments against the vision of vocationalism promoted by people like Snedden: this form of education was politically slanted toward the interests of manufacturers, and it was impractical in application.  Noting that, though manufacturers had long provided special skill training to their employees,

It is natural that employers should be desirous of shifting the burden of their preparation to the public tax-levy.  There is every reason why the community should not permit them to do so….  [E]very ground of public policy protests against any use of the public school system which takes for granted the perpetuity of the existing industrial regime, and whose inevitable effect is to perpetuate it, with all its antagonisms of employers and employed, producer and consumer.”[7]

In addition he noted that the very factors that led to the destruction of the apprenticeship system – particularly “the mobility of the laboring population from one mode of machine work to another”[8] – would also make vocational training in specific job skills impractical.

Snedden wrote a long letter in response to Dewey’s argument, which was published in May of 1915, three months after Dewey’s second article.  He sounded a bit puzzled and hurt to find Dewey disagreeing with him.

We have…reconciled ourselves to the endless misrepresentations of numerous reactionaries and of the beneficiaries of vested educational interests and traditions.  But to find Dr. Dewey apparently giving aid and comfort to the opponents of a broader, richer and more effective program of education, and apparently misapprehending the motives of many of those who advocate the extension of vocational education in schools designed for that purpose, is discouraging.[9]

Following a pattern he used throughout his career when he encountered opposition to his proposals, he responded by patiently repeating his points and redefining concepts in his own terms without ever engaging the more fundamental critiques of his opponent.  Ignoring Dewey’s point about the social functions of vocational education in a capitalist economy, he restated his own view, that “Vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation.”[10]  He went on to say:  “Now, many of us have been forced, and often reluctantly, to the conclusion that if we are to have vocational education for the rank and file of our youth as well as for the favored classes, we shall be obliged to provide special vocational schools for this purpose….”[11]

Dewey’s reply was uncharacteristically blunt and forceful in rejecting Snedden’s arguments, as he deepened and clarified his own vision of vocationalism.  It is worth quoting at length, since it defines the stark contrast between the two visions, a contrast that he saw much more clearly than his befuddled opponent.

I would go farther than he is apparently willing to go in holding that education should be vocational, but in the name of a genuinely vocational education I object to the identification of vocation with such trades as can be learned before the age of, say, eighteen or twenty; and to the identification of education with 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.  I object to regarding as vocational education any training which does not have as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.  I have my doubts about theological predestination, but at all events that dogma assigned predestinating power to an omniscient being; and I am utterly opposed to giving the power of social predestination, by means of narrow trade-training, to any group of fallible men, no matter how well intentioned they may be….

Dr. Snedden’s criticisms of my articles seem to me couched in such general terms as not to touch their specific contentions.  I argued that a separation of trade education and general education of youth has the inevitable tendency to make both kinds of training narrower, less significant and less effective than the schooling in which the material of traditional education is reorganized to utilize the industrial subject matter – active, scientific and social – of the present-day environment.  Dr. Snedden would come nearer to meeting my points if he would indicate how such a separation is going to make education “broader, richer and more effective”….

Apart from light on such specific questions, I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social.  The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will “adapt” workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.  It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and ultimately transform it.[12]

Understandably, perhaps, Snedden never responded to this final blast, so Dewey had the last word in the debate.  His statement remains to this day the most insightful and compelling critique of the social efficiency movement.  But Dewey’s rejoinder had no apparent effect on Snedden, who continued making the same case for a socially efficient and vocationally useful form of education throughout the 1920s and 30s, the only difference being that his arguments grew increasingly extreme and his influence within education grew increasingly weak.  More significantly, however, Dewey’s critique of social efficiency also had no significant effect on the direction of American public education, which by the early 1920s was lining up solidly behind the social efficiency vision. Herbert Kliebard put it this way, in commenting on the long-term outcome of the debate,  “Needless to say, Snedden’s version with its emphasis on occupational skill training was the ultimate victor in terms of what vocational education became, while Dewey’s ‘industrial intelligence’ in the sense of an acute awareness of what makes an industrial society tick is almost nowhere to be found.”[13]  In short, the administrative progressive vision of David Snedden, with its focus on social efficiency and educational utility, defeated the alternative progressive vision of John Dewey, with its focus on social justice and educational engagement.

David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency

Walter Drost captures the central story of Snedden’s career in the title of his biography of the man, David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency.[14]  In this section I sketch the course of Snedden’s career as the prime proponent of social efficiency.

Born in 1868, Snedden grew up on a modest ranch in northern California, where he helped herd cattle and was educated in a one-room log schoolhouse.  He attended St. Vincent’s college in Los Angeles (later Loyola University) and took a position as an elementary teacher in 1889.  In short order he became an elementary principal and then high school principal before quitting to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in education at Stanford University in 1895 (just four years after Stanford opened).  Upon graduating two years later, he took a position as a high school principal and superintendent in Paso Robles, California.  In 1900 he addressed the Stanford Alumni Association and sufficiently impressed President David Starr Jordan that the latter offered to hire him as a professor of education if he would first earn a master’s degree.  He did so at Teachers College and then returned to teach at Stanford until 1905, when he went back to TC to pursue a doctorate.

Snedden’s interest in education for social efficiency appeared quite early in his career.  As a teacher in the early 1890s, he avidly read the works of Herbert Spencer, which he acknowledged in his memoirs as having “laid the groundwork for [his] subsequent thinking.”[15]  As a student at Stanford, his strongest connection was with Edward A. Ross, a sociologist who at the time was developing the ideas for his most influential book, published in 1900, called Social Control.  From these two thinkers, he drew a rather literal understanding of their central constructs – social Darwinism and social control – which shaped all of his later work as an educational reformer.  Two early pieces of writing in particular show these influences and set the tone for his later work:  his 1900 speech at Stanford and his 1906 doctoral dissertation at Teachers College.

His address to the alumni was titled, “The Schools of the Rank and File.” As he told the audience, he wanted to talk with them about public education.

I want especially to consider that education as it affects the rank and file of society; for it we are right in thinking that training for leadership will largely become the function of the university, it still remains true that the most careful consideration must be given to those who will do duty in the ranks, who will follow, not lead.[16]

Noting that the rapid expansion of the high school at the start of the twentieth century meant that it “has ceased to be for the leisure class alone,” he went on to explain what character this evolving institution should now assume.  “And in the nature of our civilization to-day there are the strongest reasons why the system of public education should increasingly continue to absorb, not only training for culture’s sake, but that utilitarian training which looks to individual efficiency in the world of work.”[17]

If this was the direction the high school should head, then the curriculum would need a complete transformation.  Instead of focusing on the classics, the new foundation of education would be vocational training for the many instead of an education in high culture for the few.  In this new educational order, traditional school pursuits – such as the study of classical languages, math, science, and English literature – were no long useful for most students.  While acknowledging that “these subjects may represent the best preparation for higher education,” he concludes that “the demand is general for education more nearly related to the necessities of active life, and, as far as the ordinary ranks of society are concerned, I am unable to see that the demand is a mistaken one.”[18]

This speech launched Snedden’s career as an educational reformer and education professor, winning him a job on the Stanford faculty and the opportunity to pursue a doctorate at Teachers College.  He completed his doctoral program in 12 months (this was common at the time, but it does resonate with Willis’s depiction of him as “half-educated”), after writing a dissertation on juvenile reform schools.  If his Stanford speech worked out the social efficiency theme in his future work, the dissertation connected that with the social control theme.  For Snedden did not see reform schools as a marginal educational enterprise for delinquent youth; instead, he saw them as a model for the new schools of the rank and file.  Unlike traditional schools, reform schools focused on a troubled subset of the population rather than the heterogeneous whole; they provided targeted training in particular occupational skills for these students rather than a general liberal education; they did so in a highly structured manner, based on scientific placement in the right program; and their educational process emphasized the discipline of the workplace.  If only schools in general would adopt this mix of differentiated vocational skill training and social discipline.

His dissertation won him an appointment at Teachers College as adjunct professor of educational administration, which he held until 1909 when he assumed the newly created position as Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts.  This was the role that brought Snedden to national prominence as an educational reformer.  He came in with a strong mandate to create a separate system of vocational schools in the state, following on the recommendation of the Douglas Commission, and he pursued this goal with zeal.

Snedden immediately hired his former student at Teachers College, Charles A. Prosser, as deputy commissioner for industrial education.  Like Snedden, Prosser was a former superintendent with no experience in vocational education, but that did not deter the two of them from pushing hard to establish the kind of distinctive vocational schools that Snedden had been arguing for, unburdened by the traditional baggage of general liberal education and unattached to regular high schools.  Once his career was launched by Snedden, Prosser became a leading figure in the administrative progressives, serving as the national high priest of American vocational education.  In 1912, he resigned his post in Massachusetts to become the full-time executive director of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE).  He almost single-handedly wrote the landmark federal legislation that established the aims and funding for a national system of vocational education, the Smith-Hughes Act (1917), and he served as the first executive director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education.  He spent the remainder of his career as the director of the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, a privately funded vocational school designed to be a model for the rest of the country.[19]

As Commissioner, Snedden appointed another figure who became a national leader of the administrative progressives, Clarence Darwin Kingsley, assigning him in 1912 to be the board’s agent for high schools.  Kingsley was a mathematics teacher at the New York Manual Training School who became a leader in the New York High School Teachers Association.  He first gained national visibility as the chair of the NEA Committee of Nine on the Articulation of High School and College, and had just been selected as general chair of the NEA Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE).  Under Snedden’s direction, Kingsley had the opportunity in Massachusetts to apply some of the social efficiency ideas that eventually became embodied in the CRSE’s influential 1918 report, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.

In 1916, a year after his debate with Dewey, Snedden returned to Teachers College as a professor of vocational education and educational sociology, and he remained there until his retirement in 1935.  He had been writing and speaking about social efficiency in education during his term as Commissioner, but his productivity went up substantially upon coming back to Teachers College.  Over the course of his career, Snedden wrote 25 books.  Among his more prominent works were:  The Problem of Vocational Education (1910); Problems of Secondary Education (1917); Vocational Education (1920); Educational Sociology (1922); Foundations of Curricula (1927); What’s Wrong with American Education (1927); and Towards Better Educations (1931).  In addition, he published a large number of journal articles, at the rate of a half dozen or more per year, most often in Teachers College Record, Journal of Educational Sociology, or School and Society.  On top of this, he was a tireless speaker, who spent as many as six days a week speaking to groups of educators about vocational education, social efficiency, and the need for applying science to the construction of effective curriculum.  Most of these speeches ended up in print in one of his books or journal articles.

As the leader of the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement, Snedden exerted a powerful influence on the reform process in American education.  In part this was the result of his energetic efforts to get out the message, both in person and in print.  But his effectiveness was the result of more than his energy and productivity.  He was also remarkably well placed to exert an impact on schooling.  He had the dual credibility that came from being both an accomplished practitioner and a prolific academic.  As an experienced teacher, superintendent, and state commissioner, he could speak to other educators as a knowledgeable insider and fellow reformer in the trenches.  And as a professor at Teachers College, he occupied the most prominent pulpit in the progressive movement, both wings of which often seemed to be a wholly owned subsidiary of this institution.  Most of the notable administrative and child-centered progressives in the first half of the twentieth century either taught at TC or were educated there.  In addition, Snedden directly launched the careers of a number of leading administrative progressives, including Prosser and Kingsley, and his acolytes extended well beyond his immediate protégés because of the extensive reach of his teaching, speaking, and writing.

The Triumph of Social Efficiency Reform

Snedden’s influence came to a peak at the end of World War I, when the administrative progressives produced their two most signal accomplishments – the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 and the issuance of the Cardinal Principles report in 1918, both written by his own protégés.  The Smith-Hughes Act established vocational education as a national force in American education, with federal funding and with a clear definition of vocationalism that matched the social efficiency agenda.  As head of the industrial education organization, Prosser wrote the text of the law and ushered it through the political minefields in Washington.  Overall, there was close fit between the ideas of Snedden and Prosser and the terms of the Act.  Funds only would go to support vocational training classes, leaving states and districts to pick up the cost of general education, and half of the time in vocational classes needed to spent doing “practical work on a useful or productive basis.”[20]  Prosser immediately became the first director of the new Federal Board of Vocational Education, and in 1918 Snedden was elected president of the former NSPIE, now renamed the National Society for Vocational Education.  What a triumph for the two men most identified with this issue.

One year later, the National Education Association’s Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which was chaired by Kingsley, issued The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.  As we saw in chapter one, the Commission took the central tenets of social efficiency and proposed them as the defining principles for all of American secondary education.  These two texts – a federal law and an educational policy document – established the dominance of the social efficiency agenda in American education.  Between them they asserted that utility and efficiency were at the heart of the school system, whose primary purpose now was to prepare people to become productive workers, which called for a curriculum that was stratified by the abilities and social trajectories of individual students.[21]

A Turning Point in Snedden’s Influence in the Social Efficiency Movement

At the moment of greatest triumph for his social efficiency agenda, David Snedden experienced first disappointment and then a gradual decline in his influence.  The Smith-Hughes Act was a very close representation of the position that he and Prosser had been taking about vocational education.  But there was one annoying way in which it strayed from the party line.  In order to gain buy-in from all of the necessary political constituencies, Prosser had to abandon the Snedden mandate for rigid separation between vocational and general education; the Act gave states discretion about whether to combine or separate administration of these two programs.  Since the text was so clear in restricting funding to the “practical work” of vocational instruction and since Prosser was the director of the federal agency running the program, this would not seem to have made much of a difference.  But still it violated Snedden’s principle of clear separation.

The Cardinal Principles Report, however, elevated the mingling of vocational and general education into a defining component of the new secondary education.  True, the report was unwavering in its support of the central ideas of social efficiency – it vocationalized the purpose of the high school and marginalized liberal education within this institution – but it came down on the wrong side of the debate about separate schools for vocational and general education.  Kingsley and the committee endorsed the principle of the differentiated comprehensive high school, in which students could pursue a variety of curriculum tracks within the same institution.

This was too much for Snedden.  In 1919 he published a response to the report in the educational journal, School and Society.  He started out with some backhanded compliments to Kingsley and the commission for their “partially successful endeavors to find valid aims for secondary education somewhere else…than in some mystic principles of ‘character,’ self-realization,’ or ‘disciplined mind’….”[22]  But then he got to the point:  “In the estimation of this writer the report almost completely misses the significance of the contemporary movement for the extension of vocational education through schools.”[23]  The problem, of course, was the fact that the report endorsed the indiscriminant mingling of vocational and liberal education in the same institution.  “Is this to be interpreted as meaning that the committee would ban all public school vocational education that could not conveniently be brought within its ‘comprehensive high school?’” he asked.[24]  He then proceeded to repeat his standard rationale for the separate vocational school aimed solely at the preparation of “efficient producers.”[25]

In his rejoinder, Kingsley restated a point that was quite apparent in the report: that the Commission was strongly in favor of encouraging vocational education and curriculum differentiation within secondary education.  But he made an interesting link between these central educational elements in the reorganized  high school and the political need for interaction between students in the different program tracks.  He quoted one line from the report that speaks to this directly:  “Above all, the greater the differentiation in studies, the more important becomes the social mingling of pupils pursuing different curriculums.”  He went on to say, “it holds that the interests of American society are best served when these vocational undertakings are conducted in schools where the public mingle freely with those in other curriculums and where the interrelations of different vocational groups find expression in the school itself.”[26]

This exchange shows the nature of the divide that emerged between Snedden and the rest of the administrative progressives with the emergence of the CRSE report and that only widened during the 1920s and 30s.  It shows Snedden as the ideologue of social efficiency, insisting on doctrinal purity beyond reason, while people like Kingsley demonstrated more sensitivity to what it would take, both politically and fiscally, actually to implement social efficiency within the American educational system.  What Kingsley and others recognized was that the rigidly separate vocational school for the rank and file was simply not going to sell in the politics of American education.  For one thing, there was the practical issue that building a separate system of vocational high schools would be prohibitively expensive when there were already high schools that could incorporate the vocational track within their programs.

More important, as Kingsley’s response to Snedden demonstrates, he and the other commission members realized that a physical separation between vocational and liberal education students would be politically untenable, since it would look too much like what Snedden explicitly wanted it to be – a way of segregating education by social class into two systems of schools, one for leaders and another for followers.  There was simply too much opposition to such an overtly undemocratic form of education, not just from liberals like John Dewey, but more consequentially from the nascent labor movement, which wanted an education that might help workers advance into the skilled crafts but was opposed to a stratified system that would block mobility out of the working class.  The vocationalized and tracked comprehensive high school was a compromise institution that both labor and the more realistic administrative progressive leaders could live with.  The way the Cardinal Principles report wove together the themes of social efficiency and democracy provided the rhetorical structure for this compromise.  It is this approach that allowed the social efficiency strand of the progressive movement to have such a lasting impact on the goals and curricular organization of American education, not Snedden’s adamant insistence on pursuing his own vision of schooling that would make the rank and file into efficient producers.

The Emergence of Snedden the Strange

By the early 1920s, Snedden was beginning to lose connection with his own movement.  Not only was Kingsley going his own way, with great success, but even the vocational educators, his most devoted following, were backing off from him.  Drost suggests that the members of the National Society for Vocational Education, who elected him president in 1918 and again in 1919, did so less as a vote of confidence in his ideas than as recognition for his past efforts on behalf of their cause.[27]  By then, they were increasingly comfortable with the CRSE’s vision, which normalized vocational education within the comprehensive high school instead of isolating it in the vocational-school ghetto.  Since Dewey’s attack, Snedden had been the object of criticism from the child-centered progressives, but now critics were emerging from educational practice as well.  In 1921, for example, a New Hampshire school trustee spoke out sharply against a tendency within school reform that he called “Sneddenism.”  “’Unskilled minds,’ he said, were being ‘crammed with knowledge of facts and processes’ when ‘trained brains’ were needed, and they alone would find a useful place in society.”[28]

If anything, the threat of marginalization spurred Snedden to ever greater feats of speech-making and publication, producing a flood of work that in retrospect made him seem not so much prolific, which he had always been, but incontinent.[29]  His central themes remained unchanged from his 1900 “rank and file” speech – this was not a man whose ideas evolved over time – but he expressed these themes in ways that became increasingly extreme and downright strange.

The first step in this direction was to take the notion of specialized vocational education into increasingly narrower channels.  In his 1920 book, Vocational Education, he argued, again in response to the Cardinal Principles report, that

From the psychological point of view there is not the slightest reason why suitably qualified persons should not, through special schools, be trained effectively for such vocations as tailoring, jewelry salesmanship, poultry farming, coal cutting, stationary engine firing, waiting on table (hotel), cutting (in shoe factory), automobile repair, teaching of French in secondary school, mule spinning, power machine operating (for ready made clothing), raisin grape growing, general farming suited to Minnesota, linotype composition, railway telegraphy, autogenous welding, street car motor driving, and a hundred others.[30]

From here he moved on to an ever more finely tuned analysis of the elements that would make up a scientifically based and educationally effective curriculum.  In the name of science and out of simple oddness, he felt compelled to develop his own terms for the elements of scientific curriculum construction.

At the highest level of curriculum planning, he proposed engaging in “strand analysis,” which would disentangle the core elements of adult life and work for curricular purposes.  “The typical farmer’s vocation is…capable of being stranded into scores, if not hundreds of operations, processes or activities that recur yearly or even daily.  Similar strandings are possible for the vocations of physician, street-car motorman, primary school teacher and the rest.”[31]  This stranding would then provide a frame for locating the basic element of the curriculum, which he called a  “lotment,” defined as “the amount of work that can be accomplished, or the ground covered, by learners of modal characteristics (as related to the activity considered) in 60 clock hours.”[32]  As an example, for “at least some of the pupils in junior high schools,” he sketched out 56 groupings of possible lotments, including “One or two lotments of ‘make-up’ projective penmanship,” “One or more development lotments of ‘appreciational’ mathematics,” “One to six lotments of “general science,” developmental,” and so on.[33]

But these units he saw as too crude to serve as more than general categories of learning.  Within the lotment was the basic building block of curriculum construction, which he called the “peth.”

The peth is in fact a ‘piece of learning’ – a piece purposely made so small that, like a brick, a bookman’s volume, a speaker’s sentence, a town lot or any other convenient unit, can be handled, studied, valued and adjusted into large composites….  For convenience of designation we may call…the amount of learning required for the word ‘foreign’ a spelling peth and the process of acquiring needed associations with ‘1776’ a peth in American history….  Learning to write the words New York’ might be taken to constitute a suitable ‘peth sized objective’ in studies of the needs and values to control in teaching handwriting.[34]

When one multiplies out the possibilities – the number of peths per lotment times the number of lotments per occupation times the number of occupational specialties – the complexity of the resulting curriculum structure is staggering.  Other administrative progressives who worked the domain of scientific curriculum-making, like W. W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt, also pursued this kind of reduction of curriculum to its elements, but no one took the process to the extreme of Snedden.  Is it any wonder that even the most dedicated vocational educators thought this a bit much?

The point of all this fine tuning of the curriculum machinery for Snedden was to make every student a better “socius,” someone who would play a useful role in a complex society.  And this required a careful system of classifying students according to their social and intellectual characteristics in what he called a “case group,” using criteria such geographical location, race, sex, age, intelligence, family income, and cultural background.[35]  Once this classification was complete, then the educator could determine which curricular lotments would be best suited to a particular case group.

In the early 1930s, when his career was nearing the end and his connection with the movement he had helped launch was growing more remote, he turned his attention from the increasingly depressing present toward the hopefully more promising future of education.  He wrote a book in 1931 in which he described the state of American High Schools and Vocational Schools in 1960 to an imagined group of Chinese educators who were visiting the U.S. in that year.  At that point, he saw vocational education turning into a postgraduate affair, noting that “shortly after 1930 all vestiges of supposed vocational training were withdrawn from high schools” with “specific vocational schools open only to mature learners.”[36]  His hopes for vocational training were now directed toward students over 18, and the degree of specialization he anticipated was extraordinarily high.  At the end of the book, he proudly told his Chinese visitors the “There are now about 6,500 kinds of vocational schools in the United States – that is, for that number of clearly differentiated vocations.”[37]

In other futuristic writings from this period, he speculated about the promise of social engineering through education in a way that was beyond bizarre, bordering on fascist.  He imagined a 50 years ahead, “after certain present more or less incipient developments shall have matured in approved standardized practices” and the science of education had sufficiently advanced to create the ideal society, which he sometimes called the “province of Zond.”[38]  In this new world, a mixture of educational eugenics (which he called “eudemics”), scientific curriculum directed at the appropriate case groups, and an energized system of social control showed the promise of his social efficiency vision for America.

In the poorer quarters of all large cities the department of domestic police requires those parents who, for whatever reason, can provide only defective and unwholesome environment – household and neighborhood environments – to sent their children two to eight years of age to special nursery and kindergarten schools….

The same domestic police, after presenting their cases to the proper court, also require parents of wayward or antisocial children eight to sixteen years of age to send these to special schools, the sessions of which usually last twelve hours per day, seventy-two hours per week, and fifty two weeks per year – each year including a six weeks’ summer camping season in the woods or on the seashore.[39]

In an essay in the Journal of Educational Sociology titled “The Socially Efficient Community,” he talked about fostering civic virtues (which he frequently called “civism”) in this future society.

Throughout adult years Zond expects all adult members to be especially strong in conformist civic virtues – especially to the will of the majority as formally expressed in laws, ordinances, etc.  But it keeps wide open channels for sects, parties, and other groups to educate towards collective formation of new laws, choice of new executives.  Habitual or confirmed offenders, whether willful or because of natural defect, it painlessly destroys – not as a punishment, but as “social surgery.”[40]

It’s no wonder why other administrative progressives withdrew quickly from the long association with Snedden, for fear that they would be tainted by association with his increasingly bizarre view of the world.

Why Snedden Won and Dewey Lost

So, to return to the original question about the debate between Snedden and Dewey:  How can a man like David Snedden –  “the stock pedagogue-philistine figure of modern times, half-educated, anti-intellectual, instinctively hostile to humanistic culture” and increasingly “insane,” even in the eyes of his fellow zealots in the social efficiency wing of the progressive movement – defeat the great John Dewey for the soul of the American educational system?  How could someone whose ideas proved so forgettable – or, when revived, so embarrassing – trounce the ideas of someone whose writings on education continue to be seen as a model for enlightened thinking about the relationship between school and society?

Let me break down this question into two parts.  First I explore the more general question of why the administrative progressives triumphed over the child-centered progressives in the early twentieth century by managing to stamp their social efficiency vision onto the goals and structures of American education.  Then I take up the more difficult question of how Snedden could have defeated Dewey.

How the Administrative Progressives Won

A number of scholars have written about the way progressive reform tended to follow the lead of the administrative rather than child-centered progressives.[41]  For example, Kliebard summarizes one major theme in his history of the U.S. curriculum in the progressive era by arguing that “John Dewey’s curriculum work remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice.”[42]  He goes on to say, “If there is a public elementary or secondary school anywhere that self-consciously or conspicuously follows even the most elemental curricular principles that Dewey set forth, then I certainly do not know of it.”[43]  Why did things turn out this way?

First, the administrative progressive message of educational utility and social efficiency had great appeal to policymakers and people in power, since it offered to answer the great social problems of the early twentieth century in a manner that was in line with their own top-down orientation and social location.  It promised to use education to promote economic productivity.  It offered a way to integrate immigrants and keep the peace in a complex industrial society through a mixture of targeted programs to promote vocational opportunity and a differentiated structure to promote social control.  And it approached this task in a classic managerial way, developing plans for administering the new era schools in a manner that could be implemented from the top down and that took the executive perspective.

Second, the administrative progressives grounded their educational proposals solidly on the authority of science.  They developed apparently objective and valid techniques for measuring ability and classifying students, and they used these measures to develop appropriate curricula and organizational structures for schools.  The language of science ran through their literature, which helped them make the case for their vision as the truly modern one, a vision of the future with credible answers to the central emerging problems of modern life.  It also helped make their approach seem data-based while making that of the child-centered progressives seem romantic.

Third, a utilitarian vision is easier to sell politically than a romantic one, especially when it comes to a large and very expensive publicly-supported institution like education.  The pedagogues talked about engaging the interest of the child, promoting a richer understanding of the world, and making a more just and democratic society, whereas the administers talked about fixing social problems and expanding the economy – and doing so in a provably effective and efficient manner.  The administrative progressives invented the vision of education as a sensible investment in the future health of economy and society, which carried the air of prudence and reason.  They offered a vision of the kind of education we need instead of the kind we might like.

Fourth, as Lagemann[44] has noted, the leader of the child-centered progressives left the field of educational practice early in the game, when Dewey abandoned his work in the lab school in Chicago in 1904 and moved to the philosophy department at Columbia.  But the administrative progressives were just that, primarily educational administrators in origin and orientation, even when they generally ended up, like Snedden, in a university school of education.  They were deeply engaged in the work of designing curriculum, developing tests, consulting with educational leaders, carrying out school surveys, and in a variety of other ways making themselves useful to educators (or at least educational administrators) in the trenches.

Fifth, their close connection to the administrative structure of schools and their deep interest in improving that structure gave the administrative progressives an important advantage in implementing their ideas.  They focused on a market of school administrators that was both receptive and empowered to serve as the troops on the ground in putting these reform ideas into educational practice.  But the child-centered progressives, with their focus primarily on teaching and learning in classrooms, had to rely on individual teachers to adopt their vision and implement it one class at a time.  Not only were teachers in a weak organizational position to bring about the Deweyan vision, but they found themselves trapped within an organizational and curricular structure of schooling that was shaped by the administrative progressive vision of social efficiency.

How Snedden Won

But even if it is understandable that the social-efficiency orientation won out in the struggle to reshape American schools, that still leaves open the question of how someone as narrow, wrong-headed, and strange as David Snedden could have been its leader and major spokesman.  The simplest way to unravel this paradox is to see Snedden’s life and work as confirmation of a sociological truism – that being there is more important than being right.  Snedden was the right man in the right place wielding the right idea for his times.

The ideas that shape history are those that history is ready for, the ones that resonate with the concerns of the time and help frame a response to these concerns.  Snedden’s career in education was launched at the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States was faced with a transition from a tradition of republican community to a new state of corporate complexity, in which the old forms of political and social organization seemed no longer adequate to the challenges of the emerging modern age.  In particular, the old system of common schooling for all, aimed at providing broad education for the citizenry of a republic, seemed increasingly out of touch with the social and economic order, with its radical division of labor, growing class and ethnic differences, and explosively expansive mode of corporate industrialism.  This was a time that was primed to be responsive to the argument that the new social order required an educational system that aimed to be useful and socially efficient in dealing with the period’s emerging social problems.  Snedden was pushing just this idea.

And during this time of social and ideological change, Snedden was also perfectly positioned to be an influential actor in the domain of educational policy and practice.  As I noted earlier, he had enormous credibility as both a practitioner and academic in education – with strong experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and state commissioner, with academic credentials from Stanford and Teachers College, and with a long-term professorship at the latter that put him at the center of the progressive movement in education and gave him instant access to the broadest audience in the field.  As we have seen, he used those advantages to the fullest extent, with his energetic efforts as a speaker, writer, and teacher to promote social efficiency as the answer to the most troubling educational issues of his day.  His memoir is titled Recollections of Over Half a Century Spent in Educational Work (1949), and as his biographer reminds us, he treated his educational efforts as work in the vocational sense of the term.  In many ways, using his own typology, he was more a producer than a utilizer, and his hard work for the social efficiency cause paid off.[45]

But even if he had the right idea at the right time, occupied the ideal leverage point, and worked hard to deploy these advantages in service to his cause, we still have to deal with his quirkiness and his growing estrangement from his own movement.  He was a self-styled scientist who never did anything that remotely resembled scientific study, an educational sociologist[46] who drew on the clichés of the field – social Darwinism and social control – without ever making an original contribution.  In his written work, he never used data and he never cited sources, which made sense since he rarely even drew on sources.  His books and journal articles took the form of proclamations, scientific pronouncements without the science; they all read like speeches, and that was likely the source of most of them.

In this sense, he was more a propagandist than a theorist or thinker, someone who borrowed ideas without understanding them and then promoted them relentlessly.  The ideas sounded authoritative and gave the impression that they were building into arguments, but they were largely a collection of numbered lists and bullet points.  He was a man who would have warmly embraced PowerPoint.  In his work, portentousness abounded; it was all about riding the wave of the future and avoiding the undertow of the past.  He was an educational leader whose effectiveness arose from being temperamentally a member of the rank and file.  He relentlessly promoted vocational education for the socially efficient society of the future by proposing curricula that routinely prepared students for the tasks that characterized the jobs of the past (railway telegrapher, streetcar motorman).  He was so eager to be relevant that he gradually made himself irrelevant even within the administrative progressive movement that he helped lead.

In essence, he was a man obsessed with an idea, one that happened to resonate with his audience, at least for a time.[47]  In Isaiah Berlin’s famous typology of thinkers, Snedden was a hedgehog, pushing one big idea, and Dewey was a fox, pursuing many ideas.[48]  When a hedgehog’s idea suits its era, he can be enormously effective; but since adaptability is not the hedgehog’s strength, the resonance with the times can quickly diminish.  That was certainly the case with Snedden.  In his debate with Snedden before the NEA in 1914, Bagley put his finger on it precisely when he called Snedden a doctrinaire.  “The field of education,” he said, “has always been peculiarly open to this type of exploitation at the hands of doctrinaires.”[49]

But one of the lessons of social change in general and educational reform in particular is that every doctrine needs its doctrinaire.  Nuance is dysfunctional for the cause of educational reform, especially early in the process, when the main task is to clear the field of the accumulated institutional underbrush and make the case for a radical new order.  Every reformer needs to slash and burn the remnants of the old way of doing things, portraying the past as all weeds and decay, and clearing space for the new institutions to take root.  This is something that a literal minded, hyperkinetic, and monomaniacal figure like Snedden could do superbly.  As Diane Ravitch noted, “Snedden’s caricature of the traditional school became a staple of progressive attacks for years to come: it was ‘repressive,’ ‘monarchical,’ ‘barren and repellent,’ founded entirely on classics and completely out of touch with American democracy.”[50]

Being extreme at this early stage of reform is quite useful, whereas the kind of nuanced approach that Dewey took, with its abhorrence of the very dualisms that Snedden loved, was not conducive to launching an effective movement of educational reform.  Therefore, the administrative progressive movement was able to become firmly established and positioned for growth because of Snedden’s flame throwing.  Put another way, a publicist, who says things that resonate with the emerging ideas of his era and helps clear the ideological way for the rhetorical reframing of a major institution, can have vastly more influence than a great thinker, who makes a nuanced and prescient argument that is out of tune with his times and too complex to fit on a battle standard.

In part because Snedden was an extremist, the tendency in American education leaned strongly his direction and away from Dewey.  What we ended up with was a school system whose structure reflected the main elements of the social efficiency agenda:  a differentiated curriculum, de facto tracking by social class, and a vocational rationale, even if vocational courses never gained more than a relatively marginal part of the curriculum.

But, although Snedden was useful in preparing the way, he quickly became dispensable and even embarrassing once the social efficiency movement got established.  The turning point was in 1918.  When the federal vocational education bill passed and the Cardinal Principles report emerged to great acclaim, Snedden’s work had been done and his doctrinaire views started to get in the way of practical gains in school systems and classrooms.  With his promotional skills and his ability to stay on message, he made it possible for administrative progressives to vocationalize American education, but his actual plan for a series of separate vocational schools with radically differentiated curricula for hundreds of different occupational roles was completely unrealistic.  It was too expensive, too complicated, and too alien to a democratic culture; and it not only barred social opportunity but it undermined social efficiency, by preventing workers from adapting to economic change (Dewey’s point) and from becoming useful in the real society of the future (as opposed to his imagined province of Zond).

Other administrative progressives, like his one-time protégé Kingsley, had a better sense of what would sell and what was possible in the realm of educational policy.  They were willing to make the compromises with democratic ideology and consumer demand that were needed in order to turn Snedden’s dream into a reality in the nation’s school systems.  They understood that it was impolitic to talk about education for the rank and file.  Better to frame the social efficiency agenda as an expression of democratic ideals; to dilute the vision of vocationalism as a way to reproduce social inequality by bringing it within the confines of the comprehensive high school.  It was possible to vocationalize the aims of American education without constructing a series of separate vocational training schools.  It was possible to implement a social efficiency agenda of sorting and selecting students by means of a high school that drew in everyone in the community but then tracked them according to ability and future trajectory.  In particular, Snedden was completely out of touch with the demands of educational consumers.  These consumers wanted nothing to do with “schools of the rank and file,” which would hold them back from the possibility of upward mobility.  In contrast, they flooded into the comprehensive high schools that came into being in response to their demand in spite of Snedden’s intense opposition.

As we saw in the previous chapter, however, it was educational consumers more than progressive reformers who mitigated the impact of the more extreme aspects of the administrative progressive creed.  Working class consumers were the ones who demanded greater access to high school; progressives just tried to figure out something socially constructive to do with them once they were enrolled.  These consumers were also the ones who first rejected Snedden’s model of the separate vocational high school, since they didn’t want to be channeled into a low level position but wanted educational access to the American dream.  And it was middle class consumers who demanded that enhanced access to high school had to be balanced by tracking the newcomers into the lower tiers of this expanding institution.  Progressives then jumped on this as an opportunity to introduce greater social efficiency into the curriculum, by sorting students according to ability and career trajectory.

The system the educational consumers and administrative progressives jointly erected in the United States in the early twentieth century was effective in part because it had stronger political cover than Snedden’s extreme version.  It introduced a vocational orientation toward education – education for social efficiency, for job skills, for economic growth, for modernism – while preserving the traditional liberal academic curriculum in a diluted form.  It tracked people by class as a matter of fact but not a matter of formal policy; it could be presented as democratic education, the way the Cardinal Principles report did, while Snedden’s was explicitly undemocratic, deliberately designing a separate education for the rank and file.  Snedden played bad cop to Kingsley’s good cop, getting out in front, catching the flack, then being pushed gradually from the scene, to be supplanted and largely forgotten by the winning version of social efficiency education.[51]

In the end, Snedden’s narrowness was his strength in advancing the cause of social efficiency in American education while also being the source of his ultimate obscurity in American thought.  Dewey suffered the inverse fate, as a man whose breadth of vision about school and society weakened his impact in his own time and place but won him long-term influence in the international realm of ideas.

Consider two implications of this analysis.  First, coarseness is an advantage in the contest of competing ideas for school reform.  Dewey’s vision of progressive education – child-centered, inquiry based, personally engaging, and socially just – is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education.  It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education – as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future – is a weed.  It will grow almost anywhere.  Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work.  The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: it aims for survival rather than beauty.  But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in the richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation.

A second implication is this:  Winning ideas for social reform disappear from view and their authors are forgotten, whereas losing ideas and their authors remain visible.  For example, one winning idea in the history of school reform is the age-graded self-contained classroom, which was a radical innovation of the common school movement in the U.S. but which quickly disappeared into the grammar of schooling to the point where it now seems to us utterly natural.  How else could school be organized?  Since it is part of the way things are, this reform’s originators and their vision are now forgotten.  The same is true with education for social efficiency.  This has become part of the common sense understanding of what education is all about, so it is now detached from its original proponents, people like Snedden and Kingsley and Prosser.  We do not identify them as authors of this vision of education any more than we identify authors of  natural laws, since these laws are not inventions but descriptions of the way things are.  It would be like asking, who invented gravity?  Meanwhile, however, losing ideas and their proponents both remain visible.

Child-centered progressivism is still standing outside the walls of the school trying to break in, so it continues to define itself in opposition to the way things are in schools, and it continues to call on Dewey’s name for support.  In some ways, then, Dewey’s undiminished prominence in the realm of educational ideas is a sign of his failure in changing American schools, and Snedden’s anonymity is a sign of his success.


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Kantor, Harvey & Tyack, David. (1982). Introduction: Historical perspectives on vocationalism in American education.  In Kantor, Harvey & Tyack, David (Eds.), Work, Youth, and Schooling: historical perspectives on vocationalism in American education (pp. 1-13). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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[1]  Rudy (1968), p. 171.

[2]  Church (1969), p. 394.

[3]  P. 157.

[4]  “It is the writer’s conviction that the most useful definition of liberal education now available is that which defines it primarily in terms of education toward higher utilization.  Man stands, to the world about him, in a twofold relationship.  He is a producer of utilities on the one hand, and on the other, for his own growth and development, he must utilize utilities.  That education which trains him to be a producer is vocational education.  That education which trains him to be a good utilizer, in the social sense of that term, is liberal education.” Snedden (1914), p. 160.

[5]  Bagley (1914), p. 162.

[6]  P. 170.

[7]  Dewey (1914/1977), p. 55.

[8]  P. 56.

[9]  Snedden (1915/1977), p. 33.

[10]  P. 34.

[11]  P. 35.

[12]  Dewey (1915/1977), pp. 38-39.  Dewey more fully developed this argument about his own vision of social efficiency in education in Democracy and Education (1916), especially in chapter nine, “Natural Development and Social Efficiency as Aims.”

[13]  Kliebard (1987), p. 149.

[14]  In Left Back, Diane Ravitch makes the same point while also identifying how Snedden fit in with other administrative progressives:  “If Edward L. Thorndike was the foremost practitioner of educational psychology, and G. Stanley Hall dominated the field of child study, David Snedden was the leading representative of the social efficiency movement.”  Ravitch (2000), p. 81.

[15]  Snedden (1949), p. 12.

[16]  Snedden (1900), pp. 23-24.

[17]  P. 24.

[18]  P. 33.

[19]  Wirth (1972).

[20]  Wirth (1972), p. 369.

[21]  In their historical essay on vocationalism, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson argue that the consequences of this effort to vocationalize American education were profound: “In sum, vocational education served two concrete purposes – to fasten the ideal of education for vocational goals onto the educational system, and to restructure the high school.  It served to break down the common school ideology and the practice of a common education system for all pupils; after vocational education had differentiated pupils according to future occupations, other forms of differentiation – ability grouping being the most widespread – were introduced into the schools.  Testing and vocational guidance were developed in order to administer the increasingly differentiated system.  The high school of 1890 was fundamentally different from that of 1920.”  Grubb & Lazerson (1974), p. 39.

[22]  Snedden (1919), p. 519.

[23]  P. 521.

[24]  P. 523.

[25]  P. 526.

[26]  Kingsley (1919), p. 20.

[27]  Drost (1967), p. 157.

[28]  Quoted in Drost (1967), pp. 182-3.

[29]  I borrowed this line from David Brooks, who used it to describe Richard Posner.  See Brooks (2002).

[30]  Snedden (1920), p. 95.  I am grateful to Diane Ravitch for digging up this quote (Ravitch (2000), p. 85).

[31]  Snedden (1925b), pp. 287-8.

[32]  Snedden (1924), p. 741.

[33]  P. 742.

[34]  Snedden (1925a), p. 263.

[35]  Snedden (1923), p. 107.

[36]  Snedden (1931), p. 77.

[37]  P. 115; emphasis in original.  I am grateful to Phillipp Gonon for directing my attention to this late work by Snedden.

[38]  Snedden (1934), p. 138.

[39]  P. 138.

[40]  Snedden (1929), p. 469.

[41]  Kliebard (1986, 1987); Lagemann (1989); Cuban (1993); Ravitch (2000); and Zilversmit (1993).  I also explored the issue in my book about education schools (Labaree, 2004, chapter 7).

[42]  Kliebard (1987), p. 139.

[43]  P. 140.

[44]  Lagemann (1989).

[45]  His memoir continued the pattern of strangeness in his work, since he chose to write it in the third person.   (E.g., “Then came one of the turning points in David’s history” (p. 5).)   Two years before he died, the author of twenty-five books had to resort of self publication to get his memoir into print, .

[46]  In 1959, eight years after Snedden’s death, the American Sociological Society (ASS) changed its name to the American Sociological Association (ASA).  The timing was appropriate.

[47]  Kliebard puts it this way:  “Relentlessly, Snedden pursued to their most far-reaching conclusions the doctrine of social efficiency and the extension of principles of vocational education to the curriculum as a whole.  The question of his actual influence is moot; what his work illustrates is his ability not to transform or transcend the direction the curriculum was taking in his time but to articulate and epitomize it.”  Kliebard (1999), p. 122.

[48]  Berlin (2000).

[49]  Bagley (1914), p. 164.

[50]  Ravitch (2000), p. 82.

[51]  Snedden’s other major protégé in the social efficiency movement, Charles Prosser, remained as extreme as his mentor.  The vocational school he founded and ran for many years, the Dunwoody Institute, was a nutty reflection of the most doctrinaire positions he acquired from Snedden.  “At the Dunwoody Institute, units were programmed in great detail to lead students step by step though the skill development cycle.  Students punched in on time-clocks and instructors behaved like shop foremen rather than public school teachers.  A no-nonsense attitude prevailed.  If students were not punctual, orderly, and efficient, they were asked to leave.  (Wirth, 1972, p. 369)  At the end of his career, Prosser lent his name to the notorious resolution at the a federally sponsored conference on vocational education in 1945.  The Prosser Resolution ushered in the last gasp of  progressivism before it imploded in self caricature, the Life Adjustment Movement.