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.
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
Lecture delivered at Kyoto University and Keio University
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.