On her blog Diane Ravitch asks:

…how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?

Ironic. That’s exactly how people used to, wrongly in my view, attack her as recently as just a few years ago…

But leave aside her specific point, which I’d dispute, here’s a question for the historians that might help explain why education does careen from one thing to the next. What are the most compelling examples of where the education system has reformed itself in ways that have demonstrably benefited students? Haven’t most of the reforms, for good and ill, come from influences on the outside, whether higher ed leaders, business, etc…?

Put another way, outside of some romantic ideas about how people learn, what are the firm canonical underpinnings of this field? You need those to make sense of calls for change, reform, and so forth…and not just lurch from thing to thing.

5 Replies to “History”

  1. Switching fields from History to the public schools 15 years ago, I’d say the “firm canonical underpinnings” of education are comparable to those in my old career. As much as I love and respect the social science of History, I’d never use its conclusions as a practical guide for policy, and I don’t we are even close to the point in Education where we can make national systemic policy recommendations.

    I’m not a cynic. Someday the research will come. But today, I can’t conceive a social science approach that addresses systemic answers.

    Perhaps the best guide for action would be the research-based conclusion that schools don’t yet make a significant change for poor kids but teachers do. Since we don’t yet know how to transform high poverty secondary schools, much less entire systems, we should be more modest and build a much bigger and more talented, and more diverse body of teachers. Once we have “the hosses,” then we can develop a better game plan. But as coaches know, its the players that win or lose games with the “Xs and Os” making the difference in a very few games. Take the New England Patriot’s game plan and apply it to a franchise that lacks players, and that alone will accomplish nothing.

    By the way, there is no research to prove my above assertion. Its common sense. And in the real world, has anyone seen it happen differently?

    John Thompson

  2. I’ll take that as a challenge, though I may not be able to respond at length today. Brief answer: Cuban and Tyack, and then my criticism of that (I’ll find the reference in the next few days). Also Jennifer Hochschild’s 1984 book on desegregation. In some ways, the inside-outside language is a false dichotomy, for reasons similar to why “get the politics out of education” is a bit silly. Schools aren’t separate from the rest of society.

  3. It is TEACHING not teachers that helps poor kids.

    If all teachers were excellent at teaching, that would be a good thing.

    But you can’t make sure that all teachers become experts by, alternative routes to teaching, or by opening lots of charter schools. These mechanisms might create an excellent school or classroom, but on a small scale only. There is nothing about a charter school, or even TFA, that guarantees large-scale, across the board improvement for poor kids.

    I’m not a big fan of the public schools as is, but I am a realist.

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