SOURCE: HNN ()
Paul Peterson, a prominent education scholar and professor of government at Harvard University, here takes on the daunting task of tracing the trajectory of almost 200 years of American school reform in less than 300 pages. The clarity and precision of his writing make his book engaging and provocative. However, the book’s narrow focus and revealing omissions leave it less than completely persuasive and make it emblematic of the limitations of the current education debate.
The book’s overall interpretive arc can be captured in the titles of its three sections: “The Rise,” spanning nearly more than a century, from the beginnings of public schooling for all to the desegregation era of the 1950s and 1960s; “The Decline,” embracing approximately the next two decades; and “Signs of Resurrection” in the most recent decades, a time featuring, most importantly in Peterson’s eyes, the emergence of “choice” as a tool for reform.
Each section includes extended treatment of two or three figures who, Peterson argues, “altered America’s educational system….Each [was] heroic in his aspirations and ideals, had a powerful idea, a loyal following, and an impact that changed the system, but each was frustrated, often for reasons of his own making.” Peterson makes clear, however, that he is not endorsing the “great man theory of history”; he hastens to say that “each leader was part of a broader wave of forces by which he was shaped and to which he contributed.” In fact, the men (and all are men, until he gets to the present) are more symbols than forces in and of themselves, a fact made all the more apparent when one considers the idiosyncratic roster Peterson chooses for analysis.
Horace Mann, who headed the Massachusetts Board of Education for a little over a decade, beginning in 1837, is not a surprising choice. Peterson depicts him as a “nation builder” and (although Mann died in 1859) identifies him with the movement to expand local public schooling from the ground up throughout the 19th century. As late as 1920, Peterson points out, 80 percent of money for schools came from local sources. And, although Mann himself was dubious about compulsory schooling, Massachusetts in 1852 became the first state to adopt it. (To give you an idea of how long it can take a reform to spread, Mississippi was the last to adopt it—in 1918.)
Peterson’s choice of a second reformer, John Dewey, is equally unsurprising. Here the individual focus serves Peterson less well: as Herbert Kliebard and others have pointed out, a vast array of education reformers, often with conflicting agendas, have crowded under Dewey’s umbrella. Peterson lets them all stay. After a nod to Dewey’s “child-centered pedagogy,” he looks at social efficiency advocates (whose ideas were increasingly anathema to Dewey) and “administrative progressives,” whose emphasis on structure, organization, and credentialed expertise (welcome to the world of Carnegie units and changing classes when the bell rings) left an un-Deweyan legacy about which Peterson professes ambivalence. “It became quite unclear whether the schools belonged to the public or to the professionals,” he says.
Certainly Peterson oversimplifies progressive education in general and Dewey in particular. Given his book’s scope and brevity, that may be unavoidable. But Dewey spent the last half-century of his long life saying, in effect, to one self-proclaimed disciple after another, “No, that isn’t quite what I meant.” In 1938, he chided fellow progressives: “It is a ground for legitimate criticism, however, when the ongoing movement of progressive education fails to recognize that the problem of selection and organization of subject-matter for study and learning is fundamental…. [T]he basic material of study cannot be picked up in a cursory manner.” The Dewey who cared about content, however, is not the one whom many of his acolytes--or Peterson, for his own reasons--choose to remember.
Curriculum and pedagogy receive only passing treatment in the chapters on Mann and Dewey. Missing from the action are “humanists” such as U. S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris and Harvard President Charles Eliot, and the Committee of Ten. The anti-humanistic and highly influential Cardinal Principles (1918), which proclaimed schooling to be properly about such things as “Health,” “Command of Fundamental Processes,” “Worthy Home-membership,” and “Worthy Use of Leisure” get short shrift. And curriculum and pedagogy are even less visible in the remainder of the book, which looks at education almost entirely through the lens of public policy. This focus allows Peterson to skate by dubious mid-century developments such as the Life Adjustment movement (an offspring of the Cardinal Principles and social efficiency), which essentially wrote off the intellectual potential of 80% of students and helped to provoke one tart-tongued critic, Arthur Bestor, to describe the schools as “Educational Wastelands.” But developments like Life Adjustment surely cast doubt on whether the trajectory of American education at mid-century can so easily be characterized as a “rise.”
The last chapter in “The Rise” is about efforts at school desegregation; surprisingly, its focal figure is Martin Luther King, Jr. Peterson, a bit defensive about this choice, takes time to explain (unconvincingly, to this reader, at least) why he didn’t pick Thurgood Marshall. And, of course, while the goal of school desegregation may be education reform at its most noble, the actual results, as Peterson knows and shows, were disappointing. Only one-third of the way into the chapter, we encounter the sub-chapter, “The Desegregation Drive Stalls.”
Noting that, with desegregation sidetracked, “the rights of the outspoken, the disabled, and those who spoke languages other than English became the school agenda for the 1970s,” Peterson launches his narration of “The Decline.” Two chapters, “The Rights Movement Diversifies” and “Money and the Adequacy Lawsuit,” have no central character, although the generic figure of the lawyer might suffice, as schools and the teachers and administrators were caught up in an increasingly tangled web of law and regulation. The chapter on “Albert Shanker and Collective Bargaining” demonstrates how “the [American Federation of Teachers] and [National Education Association] successfully fought off community control, protected teacher tenure, enhanced health and pension benefits, defeated many efforts to weaken teacher certification rules, and kept intact the uniform salary schedule.” Shanker gained a fearsome reputation as the hard-nosed teachers union leader in the notorious Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute in the late ‘60s—in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” it’s reported that the previous civilization had been destroyed “when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” And despite his later endorsement of school reforms (such as the standards movement), Shanker was forever identified with union positions that made such reforms difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Not that unions were entirely successful even on bread-and-butter issues. Peterson points out that “when it came to the most important issue—maintaining teacher salaries at the level needed to keep jobs in the industry competitive with other jobs—the collective-bargaining rights Al Shanker won for teachers failed to bear fruit.” (Peterson cites a revealing statistic: “School expenditures have tripled—in real dollar terms—over the past fifty years, but, relative to other employees who hold college degrees, teachers today are not as well paid as they were in 1960.”)
Peterson’s portrayal of Shanker is consistent with two of his most important overall arguments: that the trend throughout the decades he discusses has been toward consolidation (think 120,000 school districts in 1890 and about one-tenth of that today) and centralized control (think No Child Left Behind), and that implementing even partially the ideas of each reformer he discusses has had unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more evident than in his last chapter on “The Decline,” “William Bennett and the Demand for Accountability.”
Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush, Bennett is in many ways a strange choice as exemplar of accountability. As Peterson recognizes, Bennett presented his ideas—“the three C’s: content, character, and choice”—primarily to advocate “excellence.” But Bennett concluded that excellence was impossible without accountability, so he spoke out for that, too. This quickly produced paradox: “School accountability implies centralized control, whereas excellence requires flexibility, autonomy, and imagination,” says Peterson. “School accountability was an essential step….But it distracted attention from the student—the person who, in the end, is the one primarily responsible for his or her education.” Peterson absolves Bennett of responsibility for the complications that were to come: “Bennett seems to have thought the federal role was mainly hortatory, not anything as concrete and convoluted as No Child Left Behind.”
Peterson’s decision to make the politicized, polemical Bennett one of his six influential figures reveals again his assumption that it is policy—even in the form of official oratory--that changes schools. If he thought that what happens in the classroom matters, he might have selected E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation. Hirsch came to prominence in the late 1980s, along with a host of other “bottom-up” reformers who responded at least partly to the federal “Nation at Risk” report of 1983. Many of them, including Hirsch, are still going, despite being pushed toward the margins by the literacy and numeracy fixation of NCLB’s testing regime. But Hirsch doesn’t rate so much as a mention in this book—not least, one suspects, because Hirsch’s emphasis on the need for a common core curriculum runs counter to Peterson’s insistence that excellence requires “flexibility” and “autonomy.”
On the other hand, the most-mentioned figure in the book (and the closest thing to a full-fledged “hero” in it) is Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman. He rates an entire chapter (in the section with the quasi-religious title, “Signs of Resurrection”)—not for his famous 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” (which found that student performance was most closely related to family background, as well as to peers’ performance), but for what Peterson terms “Coleman III,” a 1981 analysis of school choice. This propels Peterson into an extended discussion of choice—including Milwaukee’s voucher program, charter schools, and ultimately home-schooling, “the most dramatic, most potent, most radical form of choice,” which, Peterson says, “may prove to be the incubator of the educational future.”
The educational wheel, argues Peterson, is turning away from the world of “larger schools, larger school districts, collective-bargaining agreements, tighter bureaucratic controls, court-ordered mandates, federal regulations….[E]ducation is now being thought of as something that must be customized to the needs and wants of families and individuals.” While charter school students constitute about two percent of the student population, home-schooled students may already double that figure. And where, you may inquire, might that lead?
According to Peterson, it takes us to Florida Virtual School in Orlando, where Julie Young is the chief executive officer (not, you will note, the principal) and the motto is that students can learn at “any time, any place, any path, any pace.” FLVS is the exemplar for distance education, customized for individual learning without the significant (indeed, according to Peterson, the fatal) drawback of being labor intensive. Peterson knows there will be doubters—he specifically takes on Larry Cuban’s study of the history of futility experienced by past attempts to rely heavily or exclusively on technology. But he praises the school’s “progressive philosophy” and its two most popular online courses, “Life Management Skills” and “Health / Physical Education,” two “favorites of the life adjustment movement.” (Hello again, Cardinal Principles.)
Peterson tries to curb his enthusiasm, notes the likely sources of resistance in the status quo, and even confronts the concern that online education could become a kind of Orwellian “Big Brother.” But in the end he can’t restrain himself: “Young people are too diverse, too imaginative, too insistent on doing it their own way, too reluctant to be told what to do to accept a one-size-fits-all mass educational system purveyed over the Web. Students will differ in the history they wish to explore, the approaches to science they want to take, the novels and poetry they want to read, the languages they want to study.”
And how, I want to know, will THEY know in any meaningful way what their choices are, and on what basis will they choose? Peterson’s answer seems almost giddy: “Each student, each household, each family will pick and choose among the endless variety of options entrepreneurs can produce. Curricular materials may soon be available to consumers free of charge, as open-source development does for schooling what it has already done for encyclopedias, cell applications, and website design. Young people will set up communication systems among themselves, finding the sharing of ideas among themselves than listening to hoary figures of the past.”
Well, now. I rise on behalf of those hoary figures of the past (and perhaps as one of them, although I’m writing this review on a computer and posting it online) to say that this view of the future not only won’t happen, but also shouldn’t happen. Peterson’s vision of the future is just one more version of what we get when education is seen primarily (or entirely) as a system of institutional arrangements, rules, and regulations: just get the policy right, according to this worldview, and you’ll get the education you want and need.
Education (it shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but these days it is) is far more than that. It is about more than skills and literacy and numeracy. It is about ideas and values, about stories and music and poetry, about things that are worthwhile for their own sake and because they provide the basis for communicating with others. It is both individual and communal, something to be shared with peers and across generations. And it isn’t acquired simply by making semi-informed selections from a random curricular menu and then sitting down for an online chat.
At its best, education is not merely customized, individualized, or personalized; it is personal. It is owned and internalized. And the catalyst for making that happen is still the knowledgeable and committed instructor. One of the few things about which education research is relatively unambiguous is the signal importance of the quality of the teacher. (This would concern Peterson, who cites many discouraging statistics to show that education is too labor-intensive.) And we also know, thanks to cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham, what we really have known all along, that skills and content must be taught together, and that reading proficiency depends a lot on content knowledge. (This is not good news for proponents of “21st-century skills,” or for devotees of NCLB, enforcement of which confuses literacy with education, and test-taking with performance.)
Of course, the formula of a content-rich curriculum plus effective teaching is not new. William Torrey Harris and Charles Eliot knew it over a century ago; E. D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, among others, know it today. So too do the students in my class at the “selective” university where I teach, the overwhelming majority of whom write in their educational autobiographies that their road to higher education was paved by the high school equivalent of a liberal arts curriculum introduced to them by competent, sometimes even inspiring, teachers. But the loudest voices in school reform today speak endlessly of “accountability” and of enforcing it from the top down.
Paul Peterson details how policy-making became more and more complicated, and how power has increasingly flowed to the top, culminating in No Child Left Behind. But he doesn’t show how (or even if) he thinks this affected curriculum, pedagogy, and the real-life relationships between teachers and students. Nor is his futuristic vision of radically individualized learning realistic or convincing. If we are really serious about “saving schools,” we need to devote much more attention to students and teachers, and to what actually goes on behind the classroom door.