Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

School Development and School Reforms

  • Ethan L. Hutt
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_4



If there are two truths nearly universally recognized in the history of American schooling, they are that Americans have an unwavering faith in schooling to transform the individual and society for the better and that American schools are deficient and in need of reform. These two beliefs – limitless potential and inadequate realization – have combined historically to make school reform something of a national pastime. This entry explores the political, cultural, and organizational dynamics that animate the constant drive for school reform and that have produced the sense – not wholly unwarranted – of constant failure and the need for still more reform. The first section explores the political and organizational features of schools that have given rise historically to one major source of calls for school reform: the transformation of social problems into school problems. The second section examines the specific and competing goals of schooling itself, and how attempts to resolve the tensions between these goals has also given rise to constant calls for school reform. Though this entry explores these two sources of school reform separately, as will become clear, reform efforts are rarely strictly in one category or the other as calls for school reform are a function of perceptions of the broad array of social institutions in which schools feature prominently.

School Development and Societal Roots of School Reform

Though many American towns particularly in the Northeast had developed an array of institutions to educate their young – charity schools, church schools, private academies – by the late eighteenth century, scholars generally date the beginning of the common school movement to the 1830s and the rise of a tireless cohort of school system builders including, notably, Horace Mann and Henry Barnard. While access to schooling and literacy levels among Americans was already quite high by world standards, the common school reformers distinguished themselves by arguing for more systematic instruction, increased professionalization of teachers, more consistent attendance, and, crucially, a single system of tax-supported public schools. The promise held out by common school advocates that schools could produce morally upright, republican citizens was well attuned to the anxieties of the age. Faced with the socially disruptive effects of urbanization, the factory system, an increasingly interconnected market economy, and large-scale immigration – primarily Irish Catholic – Americans in the North were increasingly convinced that universal schooling was the key to social cohesion and preservation of the republic in an increasingly turbulent age. Thus, the curriculum of the common school tended to emphasize the middle-class Protestant themes of discipline, hard work, and self-improvement rather than strictly scholastic achievement. As many scholars have noted, the overtly moral themes of individual responsibility in the early common school curriculum meshed well with a society increasingly characterized by the inequality of market capitalism and the dissolution of the family unit in the face of shifting patterns of work and migration (Kaestle 1983; Reese 2011).

Though the arguments made by common school reformers proved alluring to a wide swath of Americans, the distinct legal and organizational character of American school schooling meant that the uptake of these ideas was uneven and the provision of schools available varied considerably by region and urbanicity – the South generally had fewer schools for poor whites and none for African Americans; rural communities tended to have more limited educational offerings than urban centers.

The organization of the American school system is best characterized, especially when compared to other countries, as radically decentralized. The US constitution makes no mention of education or a school system, and while federal policy has encouraged the establishment of schools and universities through the granting of federal land to States (e.g., the Northwest Ordinance (1787); Morrill Act (1862)), the responsibility for the creation, organization, and perpetual funding of schools has always been left to individual States. States themselves, in turn, have transferred this responsibility to individual cities and towns – either permitting or requiring towns of a certain size to make provision for the creation of publicly funded schools.

The upshot of this organization – often described as “loosely coupled” – meant that historically there has been very limited federal or State government infrastructure to support the creation and oversight of individual schools. Unlike national ministries in other countries, responsibilities of the US Bureau of Education (founded in 1867) extended only to the compilation of statistics and the dissemination reports about school activities rather than direct influence on them. Likewise, the median number of officials in State departments of education in 1900 was two. Though States exerted increasingly strong influence on school policy starting around the turn of the twentieth century in the form of compulsory attendance laws, district consolidation, minimum school standards, and contingent State aid, these efforts were frequently aimed at prodding local officials to direct their school reform energies in particular ways and usually remained dependent on local acquiescence (Steffes 2012). Even in the second half of the twentieth century when school quality increasingly rose to the level of national concern, federal education legislation was still dependent on State and, more often, local officials for implementation. The distributed responsibility for schools has helped sustain the cherished American ideal of “local control” of schools and is a good example of the tendency of the American State to develop in ways less visible – though not necessarily less strong – than European States.

The combination of the relatively limited, distributed State educational infrastructure; association of schools as community, rather than State or federal, institutions; and enduring cultural faith in the power of education to solve social problems through the betterment of individuals helps explain the seeming permanent state of school reform.

First, it has made schools a primary location for State intervention in social problems. The transmutation of social and economic problems into educational ones can be traced in a nearly unbroken line from early nineteenth-century concerns about social stability through late nineteenth-century concerns about assimilation, alcohol consumption, and public health to twentieth-century concerns about national defense, drug use, sexual health, economic competitiveness, racism, and inequality. In each case, schools were identified by combinations of social reformers, politicians, and the public at large as the appropriate site for addressing the problem of the day in part because of their ubiquity – nearly all communities have them and nearly every child attends one – and in part for the comparatively light touch that these efforts seem to impose. That is not to say that these efforts have not generated a fair bit of controversy – they have – but it is easier to aspire to change the flexible attitudes and behaviors of youth than the ossified ways of their parents. Since American society is rarely at a loss for social problems in need of solving, the task of school reform becomes a permanent tool of social policy.

Second, while the belief in the power of schooling has made schools a reflexive answer to many social problems, the multiple layers of organizational control – federal, State, local, school, classroom – and the limited capacities within each layer means that the translation of school reform policies into classroom practice is difficult and prone to the introduction of local adaptations at each level. One result of this organizational challenge is that cycles of “policy talk” – and even actual policy – can be largely disconnected from actual change in schools especially given that timelines for policy action and policy implementation are often entirely distinct (Tyack and Cuban 1995). As was the case during the Cold War, lawmakers could be viewed as effectively combating the Soviet threat by supporting new and more rigorous math and science curricula even when the social payoff was in the distant future and ultimately unrealized when the curricular reforms were supplanted by still more and different reforms.

More often, successfully implemented school reforms have been those that have focused on structural reforms or the addition of distinct organizational features that are easier to achieve and more readily discernible than changes in classroom practice. Examples of these kinds of structural and organizational changes include the age grading of schools, the creation of issue-specific courses (e.g., sex ed, health, home economics), the establishment of kindergartens and junior high schools, and the introduction of curricular standards. Though all of these reforms are widely recognized as comprising the core of modern schooling, as organizational features of school, their capacity to address the social concerns that gave rise to their creation is limited: the introduction of more articulated and rigorous curricular standards adopted by nearly every American State in the 1970s to combat threats to American economic competitiveness had little effect on either classroom practice or macroeconomic trends.

Third, while change though schooling is a very indirect intervention into social problems – if for no other reason than the considerable lag between intervention and desired outcome – the reflex to use schools in this way can be self-perpetuating. Directing State building efforts toward schools for one public health problem, vaccination, for example, makes schools a more “obvious” site for intervention in the next public health problem. Likewise, in the second half of the twentieth century, the effort to rectify the harms of centuries of racial subjugation, segregation, and discrimination via the integration of schools or the effort to fight poverty through the extension of school programs and an increase in school funding directed the expansion of the American State in the direction of schooling – a decision that not only reframed these problems as educational in nature but also that directed attention from other possible solutions to these issues. At a broader level, as many scholars have noted, the educationalization of social problems has a tendency to emphasize the individual dimension of problems in ways that can obscure its larger structural dimensions as well as bring the school system in line for criticism (and more reform) for failing to solve problems largely beyond its institutional capacities and purview. Thus, the failure of minority populations to achieve similar labor, economic, or social outcomes came to be defined as a failure of the educational system in particular and a failure of social welfare policy more generally (e.g., Kantor and Brenzel 1992).

Conflicting Goals and Organizational Sources of School Reform

The previous section focused on the ways in which school reform was the result of larger social issues becoming repackaged as educational problems. This section examines another source of school reform efforts: inherent tensions within the multiple goals of schooling. As political institutions in a liberal democracy, schools have always had multiple constituencies – taxpayers, employers, and parents – and, in turn, multiple formulations of their intended goals of which some are largely collective public goods (e.g., creation of good citizens and productive workers) and others are largely private goods (e.g., individual attainment and upward mobility). Though historically there have been many components and formulations of these goals, they can generally be grouped under three headings: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Labaree 2012).

Stated briefly, democratic equality is the idea that schools should be primarily concerned with the creation and equal treatment of capable citizens with the capacity for productive participation in a democracy; social efficiency is the idea that schools should be primarily concerned with the training of productive workers who can fulfill the demands of the labor force; and social mobility is the idea that the schools should be primarily concerned with providing opportunities for individual upward social or economic mobility. Though at different times education policy has been driven by a different combination of these goals, the need to balance these three contradictory goals has been a core organizational challenge of public schools from the beginning. One way to understand the constant churn of school reform efforts, then, is the persistent effort to alleviate organizational tensions when one or more of these goals are perceived to be out of balance with the others.

The complicated interplay of these goals can be seen from the earliest days of public schooling in America. As noted above, one early impetus for widespread tax-supported schooling was white, Protestant middle-class anxieties about declining moral values and social cohesion. Whether by opportunity, suasion, or coercion, the resulting increase in school attendance among all classes of white children, it also had several consequences that became the impetus for subsequent calls for reform. While increased attendance may have quelled concerns over the creation of competent citizens, the increased educational attainment among all classes of whites reduced the value of education as a source of social distinction for the children of middle-class and wealthy families. Conversely, as education became associated with citizenship in antebellum America, African Americans found themselves increasingly excluded from educational opportunity (Moss 2010).

Families seeking to regain the value of school attainment as a means of upward mobility and social distinction pressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for the upward expansion of tax-supported schooling in the form of public high schools. Though enrollment in high school was initially determined by entrance examination – a mechanism that supported claims of equal opportunity, academic merit, and social distinction – demand for equal access to this new source of upward mobility led, in the early decades of the twentieth century, to the massive expansion of high schools and high school attendance.

Here again the expansion of educational opportunity in the name of equal opportunity led to the further reform of the school system via the creation of distinct educational tracks. These tracks allowed those in the higher, academic tracks to distinguish themselves from the larger mass of high school attendees. The use of stratification within levels of schooling has been used repeatedly to hold open the possibilities of social mobility in the face of expanded educational access including after the Civil War with the provision largely vocational education opportunities for African Americans and, in the second half of the twentieth century, as a way of integrating schools while segregating access to academic content (Anderson 1988; Oakes 1985).

The interaction between the social efficiency and democratic equality and upward mobility goals can likewise be traced to recurring calls for school reform. The early success of the common school movement drove not only the expansion of school access but also calls to curb wasteful school spending and to bring more organizational coherence to burgeoning school systems. These calls for greater efficiency through rationality and, often the introduction of techniques from business, are a recurring theme in the history of school reform. In the nineteenth century, they helped introduce age grading into the formerly one-room school house and encouraged superintendents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to fashion themselves in the mold of managerial experts overseeing the fundamentally technical process of schooling and helping to build the “one best system” and created a push for the introduction on non-college-oriented, vocational curricular tracks to aid the training of blue collar workers (e.g., Tyack 1974).

In the twentieth century as federal school policy during the Cold War increasingly placed an emphasis on the development of human capital, social efficiency-based arguments were combined with the general expansion of high school enrollment to create a push for consolidating school districts and the creation of the comprehensive high school in order to maximize organizational efficiency and, aligning with upward mobility goals for social distinction, the creation of more rigorous academic tracks for the cultivation of the country’s most gifted and talented students. In the last decades of the twentieth century, calls for greater academic rigor and accountability in the use of public funds combined with critiques of American economic competitiveness to produce the modern standards-based accountability movement. The accountability movement, given voice in the famous Nation at Risk report and crystallized in the No Child Left Behind Act, embodied not only the prioritization of human capital development that is the hallmark of social efficiency concerns but also enduring equity concerns that low academic standards disproportionately affected poor and minority students and middle-class concerns that upward mobility increasingly involved distinction at the global rather than national level (Vinovskis 2009). The general failure of the standards movement to achieve its goals of greater American academic competitiveness or greater equality of educational outcomes reflects both the chronically limited capacity of the federal government to intervene in classroom instructional quality and the orthogonal interests embedded in the American school system – while the standards movements have induced improvements at the low end of the academic spectrum, it has induced still greater improvements from those at the higher end of the economic and academic distribution seeking to maintain or advance their social position.


The American school system has been, and continues to be, in a state of nearly constant reform. This condition can give rise to the perception that the school system is in a state of crisis or irreparability. Such a view, however, fails to account for the ways in which the persistent calls for school reform are a function of society’s general faith in the capacity of education to cure social ills, the contradictory goals society seeks to produce through its school system, and the system’s own success in meeting some of these goals. The result is a system that is in part a victim of its own success and that appears dysfunctional as a result – success at addressing certain social ills is rewarded by the passing off of still more and greater social problems; and success in expanding opportunity along one dimension is met with calls for greater capacity or efficiency in another. Thus, the perpetual state of school reform should be viewed not as a sign of weakness or disrepair but, on the contrary, of the enduring vitality and perpetual growth of the school system.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Maryland – College ParkCollege ParkUSA