Change Motivated by Crisis, Expanding Education Opportunities, and Contradictory Perspectives

One of the characteristics of the history
of American education is crisis and underlying culture as a motivating force for change. An early example of this is the Old Deluder
Satan Act, established in Massachusetts in 1647. The law required townships with at least
50 families to hire a community member to teach the town’s children to read and write. According to the original text, the law was
to prevent Satan from deceiving townspeople by keeping them in a state of ignorance regarding
the Holy Scriptures; a quote from the law states, “it being one chief project of that
old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” The belief was that without a personal knowledge
of the Holy Bible people would be deceived, but the act also served a secondary purpose,
which was to rally citizens to pay taxes to educate town youth. Another, more current example, is the National
Defense Education Act of 1958. This legislation was initiated by the federal government as
a response to the threat of Soviet scientific and technological superiority, as exemplified
with the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957. According to the act, “Congress hereby…
declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources
and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that
additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation
depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles.” Familiar outcomes associated with the National
Defense Education Act include student loans for college enrollment, improvements to math,
science, and foreign language instruction, an increase in guidance counseling and achievement
testing; additional research to improve instructional media, such as television and radio, and an
expansion of vocational education. Yet a third example is A Nation at Risk, written
by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was formed during the administration
of President Reagan. Terrel H. Bell, then Secretary of Education, was tasked by the
president to report on the state of education in America. After 18 months of work, the 18
member committee delivered the report titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational
Reform. The report began with “Our Nation is at risk.
Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation
is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. If an unfriendly foreign power
had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,
we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The assumption that America was once unchallenged
in economic, scientific, and technological endeavor is debatable, and certainly a statement
made to galvanize political will for education change. The report goes on to identify problems and
solutions in the area of curricula, performance expectations, use of class time, and teacher
quality. It should be noted that most of the commission’s recommendations were ignored,
such as lengthening the school day and increasing teacher work contracts from 9 to 11 months.
One recommendation which was embraced from the 90s onward, was use of standardized tests
of achievement as a source of data for setting up accountability schemes to assign praise
and blame to teachers, schools, and school districts. Old Deluder, National Defense Education Act,
and A Nation at Risk are three examples, among many, showing education change is at times
effectively motivated by crisis, or at least the perception of crisis. Another theme observed in the history of American
education is expanding opportunities. Just as the borders of the United States expanded
westward for much of its history, so too American education in the last two centuries exhibited
a set of ideas and institutions undergoing expansion and along with this, greater need
for administrative sophistication and centralization. Early on, many educational and political leaders,
such as Thomas Jefferson, supported free, public, primary education as a way to teach
students’ basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Indeed, opportunities for education for a
large portion of the Nation’s history meant attending school only through the primary
grades. Expansion of free secondary education would not be realized until after 1859, when
state legislators in Michigan passed a law authorizing school districts of more than
200 youth to establish school boards and build high schools. State led efforts to setup high schools in
Michigan served as necessary legal precedence, opening the gate for the establishment of
widely accessible and publicly funded secondary schools. During this time, the federal government’s
role in education also expanded. Even though the United States Constitution does not include
articles for establishing or funding public schools, the federal government has justified
its involvement in education through its mandate to promote the general welfare and ensure
equal protection of the laws. One example of the federal government’s expanding
role in education was the Morrill Act of 1862, which funneled money to states from the federal
government for the creation of colleges which incorporated agriculture and mechanical arts.
The goal of the Morrill Act was to disseminate knowledge in technical disciplines. Universities
established under the authority of the Morrill act include Washington State, Oregon State,
and the University of Arizona, along with many others including Texas A and M, or Texas
agricultural and mechanical. The end of the Civil War brought even more
federal involvement in education through reconstruction of southern states. In 1865 the federal government
established the Freedmen’s Bureau and one of its responsibilities was to oversee approximately
10,000 teachers in 4,300 schools, for the education of nearly 250,000 southern youth. The promotion of equality and access to education
which served as a rationale for part of the Freedmen’s Bureau work, would be used again
in 1965 with creation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA. This act
targets federal funds to poor and disadvantaged students, often designated as Title I schools
by the percentage of students signing up for free or reduced price meals. In 2001, ESEA
was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind, which added provisions of standardized testing
and accountability. The trend of expanding opportunities, along
with centralization continues today. For example, the federal government sponsors Race to the
Top grants and rewards states for developing effectiveness measures which link K-12 student
test performance to teachers. Similarly, after the Great Recession in 2007, states accepting
money from the federal government through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act
agreed to develop and maintenance various accountability schemes, such as new teacher
evaluation criteria and elaborate K-12 student data tracking systems. Contradictory perspectives is another theme
to consider when working to understand the trajectory of schooling in America. Seemingly, each week a new report emerges
on the failure of public schools to educate the nation’s youth. More often than not, critics
cite performance on international standardized test scores as evidence of declining achievement,
and collective national descent into mediocrity. However, the reality of failed schools is
harder to gauge when compared to measurements other than test scores. For example, in 2010,
the United States Patent and Trademark Office reported 108,000 patents originating in the
United States. In comparison, there were 112,000 patents from all other countries in the world
combined. When we examine trends for patents from 1997 to 2010, the total is 1.8 million,
to 1.6 million for the rest of the world. Japan, Germany, and Taiwan placed second,
third, and fourth respectively. Alternatively, another metric, reported in
a recent Gallop pole, indicated that parents rate their own child’s school far better than
Americans rate U.S. public schools overall. Nearly 80% of parents rate their own child’s
school with an A or B, but when asked about schools generally across the nation, only
18% think schools are doing well. The complex reality of school success or failure
has not kept educators or reformers from working to improve teaching and learning. The frequency
of critiques of failed schools is perhaps only matched by the frequency of innovation
which promises improvement. One of the latest innovations is Common Core State Standards
and its associated tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC. According to advocates, the purpose of Common
Core is to prepare young people for success in college or career and position them to
compete in the global economy. However, regardless of the magnitude of an educational innovation,
such as Common Core, it is usually layered on top of a system that has changed little
since the late 19th century. For instance, the ratio of teachers to students, the number
of school days, the length of school days, the use of age grading, and separation of
disciplines into discrete units has remained relatively constant for more than 100 years. Contradictory perspectives are a symptom of
ongoing, often irreconcilable tension, surrounding education, and one area where this is most
acute is differing perspectives about the purpose of schooling. This tension has not escaped the attention
of civic leaders, such as Benjamin Rush, when in 1786, he wrote that “our schools of learning…
will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform
and peaceable government.” Alternatively, Rush also wrote that “liberty
is the object and life of all republican governments….” and that the youth of the nation should “be
instructed in all the means of promoting national prosperity and independence….” The writings of Rush expose one of the central,
and ongoing challenges associated with schooling, whether it is for promoting social cohesion,
cultural homogeneity, national prosperity, or individual liberty, or all of these in
different proportions depending on shifting priorities and circumstances. Indeed, each
new generation of educator must struggle with these fundamental issues and find its own
set of solutions, which may be embraced, ignored, or abandoned by those who come afterward.

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