Public Education Reform Essays

Education reform is often at the heart of all great reform struggles.[1]

By the 1820s Americans were experiencing exhilarating as well as unsettling social and economic changes. In the North, the familiar rural and agrarian life was slowly being transformed with the rise of factories, the emergence of a market economy, and the growth of towns and cities. The government—primarily state governments—and private individuals were investing in roads, turnpikes, bridges, canals, and railroads, linking the distant parts of the expanding republic. The new world of industry was transforming the rhythms of work, discipline, and social relations. Young men and women were leaving the farms for factory life, changing forever traditional family forms. Skilled craft workers were being replaced by machines and age-old crafts began to disappear.

The emergence of manufacturing and the growth of cities and towns led to new social problems: the deterioration of working and living conditions; the rise of poverty and indebtedness; and the increasing disparity between rich and poor. Meanwhile, periodic economic slumps created greater hardships and uncertainty. The Protestant ruling elite expressed alarm at these developing social conditions, concerned that poverty would lead to prostitution, gangs, drunkenness, crime, and other manifestations of social decline and disorder. Increased immigration after 1830, especially of the impoverished, unskilled, Catholic, and non-English-speaking Irish, further threatened the Protestant middle class.

Political changes accompanied the economic and social changes. In particular, suffrage was expanded to all white male citizens, which resulted in the emergence of new popular political activity. This increased political activity brought about labor strife and labor organization in response to the growth of waged labor and increasing social stratification. That, along with other changes brought about as a result of industrialization and the growing difference between the North and South over slavery, combined with a genuine concern for the plight of the poor, led to the development of reform movements in the areas of temperance, prison, mental health, land ownership and development, women’s rights, and abolition.

A desire to reform and expand education accompanied and informed many of the political, social, and economic impulses toward reform. Three particularly important core components of education reform developed in the antebellum period: education for the common man and woman, greater access to higher education for women, and schooling for free blacks.

At the heart of the common school movement was the belief that free common schooling dedicated to good citizenship and moral education would ensure the alleviation of problems facing the new republic. The “common school movement” was a description of a particular type of formal education, one that would become available to all citizens, developed and managed through increased governmental activity at the state level and supported by local property taxes. Common schooling was free and “universal”; that is, it was to be available to all children regardless of class (although African Americans or Irish Catholics were marginalized or excluded). The main purpose of the common school was to provide a more centralized and efficient school system, one that would assimilate, train, and discipline the emerging working classes and prepare them for a successful life in an industrial society.

The person most identified with the common school movement was Horace Mann (1796–1859), a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and then secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Mann’s ideology was based upon a strong sense of Protestant Republicanism that was rooted in a secular, non-sectarian morality. He believed that education was a child’s “natural right,” and that moral education should be the heart of the curriculum. In order to accomplish education reform, Mann advocated state-controlled boards of education, a more uniform curriculum, and greater state involvement in teacher training. Mann was firmly convinced that public education had the power to become a stabilizing as well as an equalizing force in American society—as he put it, “Education . . . is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”[2]

Mann and the common school movement had critics then, as well as now. The common school movement failed to address the issue of racial exclusion and segregation. Only when African American parents and their political allies challenged the whites-only schools and school districts would there be partial, but not lasting reforms. Catholics in Massachusetts and New York opposed Mann’s Protestant Republicanism in the common schools. Fearing religious and anti-immigrant discrimination, Catholics set up their own system of parochial schools. Historians such as Michael Katz have challenged the widely held assumption that the common school movement was an enlightened liberal reform movement designed to ameliorate the social divisions in American society. Rather, Katz and others argue that the common school movement was a deliberate attempt by the Protestant elite to control the lower classes, force assimilation of immigrants and non-Protestants, and prepare the working classes to acquire the “virtues” necessary to factory life—in particular, respect for discipline and authority. All of the criticisms of Mann and the common school system—racial segregation, religious (or lack thereof) bias, centralized school boards, and a curriculum designed for conformity were left unresolved, and are recurrent themes in the history of education and the subsequent movements for meaningful educational reform.

The struggle for greater educational opportunities for women was clearly linked to the antebellum reform movement, and in particular the campaign for women’s rights. The demand for greater educational opportunities has always been a cornerstone demand of feminists. While young women were admitted into the public or common schools, the majority of women in the United States were denied educational opportunities at every level. In 1830, women’s literacy was but half of men’s. Just as Horace Mann defined the common school movement, Emma Willard (1787–1870), Catharine Beecher (1800–1878), and Mary Lyon (1797–1849) were three leading figures in the advancement of women’s education. However, unlike Mann and the common school movement, woman reformers themselves had to struggle for education as outsiders and as second-class citizens.

Emma Willard started teaching when she was seventeen; in 1814 she founded the Troy Female Seminary, the first recognized institution for educating young women. It was later renamed the Emma Willard School. An advocate of a rigorous curriculum for girls, she addressed the New York State legislature in 1819 and challenged Thomas Jefferson’s disparaging views about women’s mental capacities. Her entire life was devoted to women’s education, and many of the graduates of the Emma Willard School joined the ranks of the women’s rights movement.

Catharine Beecher was born into a prominent family; her father, Lyman Beecher, was the well-known religious reformer; her sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Dissatisfied with her limited education at private school, Beecher was determined to provide greater opportunities for women. In 1823 she founded the Hartford Female Seminary, and offered her students a rigorous academic curriculum with an emphasis on women’s physical education. Like Mann, Beecher believed that women were natural teachers; teaching was the extension of women’s domestic labor into the schools. Furthermore the purpose of women’s education was to prepare them to be better mothers and teachers. Not a feminist, Beecher opposed women’s suffrage.

A few women combined their passion for abolition, racial equality, and education. One of the most courageous of these reformers was Prudence Crandall (1803–1890), who in 1831 founded the Canterbury (Connecticut) Female Boarding School. The next year she admitted Sarah Harris, an African American student. Almost immediately white parents protested and took their daughters out of the school. In response Crandall reopened her school as an academy for African American girls. The town retaliated with racist laws and violence. In spite of support from prominent abolitionists, Crandall was forced to close the school in 1834.

The struggle for women’s education was also epitomized by the founding of Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the first institution of higher education for women. It was established in 1837 by Mary Lyon, who served as its first president. Her vision for higher education included bringing in women from all socio-economic levels to study a demanding curriculum with a clear moral vision. Mt. Holyoke’s success was followed by the founding of other women’s colleges, such as Wellesley, Smith, and Vassar.

Feminist and educational reformers also struggled for coeducation in higher education. Oberlin College in Ohio was the first to admit women; Antioch College (founded by Horace Mann) was the first college to allow women to publicly accept their graduation diplomas as well as the first college to hire woman professors and pay them equally with men. Both colleges were “stations” on the Underground Railroad and graduated generations of leading education reformers as well as social justice activists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Reform struggles did not sweep through the American South as they did in the North. The institution of slavery militated against the emergence of manufacturing and urbanization, two critical factors that led to educational reform in the North. White southerners relied primarily on voluntary, parental, and church schooling. Wealthy planters sent their sons (and sometimes their daughters) to private academies in the North and South and to England. Education for poor white southerners was provided by charity schools and some religious institutions.

Education for black slaves was forbidden, especially after Nat Turner’s slave insurrection in 1831. The abolitionist movement provided educational opportunities for African Americans. Quakers were in the forefront of this movement, establishing racially integrated schools in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. There were a tiny handful of schools for African Americans in the South. One exceptional effort to educate free blacks in the South involved the work of John Chavis, a well-educated free African American. In 1831 he conducted classes in a school in Raleigh, North Carolina, for whites during the day and for free blacks in the evenings. Sunday Schools, which were founded in part to provide literary, religious, and moral instruction to working class and poor rural children, also educated some slaves. Whatever limited educational progress existed in the slave south, it was not connected to the larger movements for social reform.

The struggle to expand educational opportunities continued after the Civil War. Freedom Schools were created by abolitionists to educate the newly emancipated slaves; historic black colleges, such as Howard University were founded. Not all efforts were benign; in particular the Indian schools such as Carlisle were racist attempts to destroy Native American cultures. In the early years of the twentieth century, Chinese Americans successfully sued to desegregate the public school system; women’s educational opportunities continued to flourish, and finally the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, as well as African Americans from the south, changed the face of public education in America. The issues of the purpose of public education as well as its accessibility and curriculum originally faced by Mann, Crandall, Beecher, and Chavis, continue to be a part of the national debate.

[1] I would like to thank my dear colleague Sonia Murrow, Secondary Education Department, School of Education, Brooklyn College, CUNY, for her guidance. And of course Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor, Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who thinks of everything.

[2] Massachusetts Board of Education, Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary [Horace Mann] (Boston, 1848).

Barbara Winslow is a historian who teaches in the School of Education and for the Women’s Studies Program at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York. Her publications include Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996) and Clio in the Classroom: Teaching US Women’s History in the Schools (2009), co-authored and co-edited with Carol Berkin and Margaret Crocco. She is the founder and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, 1945 to the Present ( and is currently completing a biography of Shirley Chisholm as well as writing about the Seattle Washington Women’s Liberation Movement.


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This was written by David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. This post originally appeared on the Albert Shanker Institute’s blog.

By David K. Cohen

What are we to make of articles (here and here) extolling IMPACT, Washington D.C.’s fledging teacher evaluation system, for how many “ineffective” teachers have been identified and fired, how many “highly effective” teachers rewarded? It’s hard to say.

I argue in my new book, Teaching and Its Predicaments(Harvard University) that fragmented school governance in the United States, coupled with the lack of coherent educational infrastructure, make it difficult either to broadly improve teaching and learning or to have valid knowledge of the extent of improvement.

Merriam-Webster defines “infrastructure” as: “the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization).” The term is commonly used to refer to the roads, rail systems, and other frameworks that facilitate the movement of things and people, or to the physical and electronic mechanisms that enable voice and video communication. But social systems also can have such “underlying foundations or basic frameworks.”

For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula.

The United States has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

Like many recent reform efforts that focus on teacher performance and accountability, IMPACT does not attempt to build infrastructure, but rather assumes that weak individual teachers are the problem. There are some weak individual teachers, but the chief problem has been a non-system that offers no guidance or support for strong teaching and learning, precisely because there has been no infrastructure. IMPACT frames reform as a matter of solving individual problems when the weakness is systemic.

IMPACT and similar programs aim to distinguish more and less qualified individual teachers by using longitudinal measures of student achievement — especially value-added calculations — to estimate each teacher’s contribution to student learning. The goal is to reward teachers whose students gain more, or eliminate those teachers whose students gain less, or both. These programs, which promise large improvements in student performance without serious investment in system redesign, understandably have wide appeal, because they offer the appearance of a simple solution and cost little.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan favor such programs, as do a growing number of governors, state legislators, business leaders, and several large foundations. As with many states and localities, Washington D.C.’s efforts were undertaken with the support of federal and foundation incentives.

But niche “reforms” like this could not do enough by themselves to offer real improvement, even if they were accurate and reliable, which they are not.

In the case of performance pay, one problem is that the United States lacks an instructional system that would enable valid determinations of which teachers boost students’ test scores. Another is that researchers report that that performance pay does not boost student test scores (the most recent case in point is New York City’s decision to cancel its scheme after a RAND study that found that money rewards had no effect on students’ test scores).

And still another is that existing tests do not support defensible determinations of teaching quality, except perhaps at the very extremes of the distribution (see here). (One reason for that last point is that the tests have limited reliability — scores on one administration of a test weakly predict scores on another administration of the same test a week or two later.)

Tests also do not agree very well; different parts of the same test that attempt to measure the same academic content seem to yield different results. Moreover, both the students who take such tests and their teachers have unequal access to educational resources, and some teachers systematically get more or less able students (see here, here, and here). For these reasons and several others, the existing tests can incorrectly identify teachers as ineffective or not. Hence this approach is suspect even in niche terms.

In making teachers the culprit for system failure, these policies assume that the causes of weak student learning lie chiefly in teachers’ deficient sense of responsibility, determination, and hard work. It’s true that some teachers are not responsible or determined, but dealing with that small fraction of the teaching force will do little to remedy the chief school-related causes of weak student performance — the absence of systemic clarity about what is to be taught and learned, how best to teach it, and support for teachers to learn those things — all things that well-designed infrastructure could offer.

The lack of infrastructure has been especially damaging in the high-poverty schools at which teacher accountability has chiefly been aimed. One result is that most accountability policies have set off a chain of disappointing results — including the gaming of tests by states setting the bar very low, or by district and school personnel cheating (recently in Atlanta).

To be fair, efforts to refine niche reforms have had several constructive effects: They have helped call attention to America’s longest-running educational problems; they have stimulated public and private work on these problems; and they have drawn attention to inequality in public education. But they have done little to provide the systemic support that infrastructure could offer for the quality instruction that students need.

A coherent educational infrastructure in the United States could enable valid judgments about the quality of teaching and learning and about which teachers do a better job of helping students learn. If teachers and students used common curricula, for example, they would have more equal chances to teach and learn. Teachers could have meaningful opportunities to learn to teach the common curriculum in preservice or later professional education. And there could be assessments of students’ learning that were valid for the common curriculum, so students could have less unequal chances to be tested on what they were supposed to have been taught. Reform should aim to build these key elements of infrastructure, and build educators’ capability to use it well.

The mere presence of these things would not, of course, assure quality education. That would depend on how infrastructure was designed and how educators used it, and use would depend on the capability of school systems, the people who work in them, and how society supported their work.

But because teachers in the United States have lacked these resources, they have had great difficulty building shared occupational knowledge and skills. They have had no common framework with which to make valid judgments about students’ work and no common vocabulary with which to identify, investigate, discuss, and solve problems of teaching and learning.

Hence, they also have little common knowledge that could be systematized for use in the education of intending teachers. Individual teachers have developed their own knowledge and skills, and some have become quite expert — but public education has had no organized means to turn teachers’ individual knowledge and skill into common know-how, let alone remember it, improve it by analysis, and make it available to novices. Thus, even aside from the question of whether they are valid and reliable (and they are not), small, narrow programs such as IMPACT can distract the nation from how best to solve the schools’ central problems.

The views expressed in this post, which first appeared on the Albert Shanker Institute’s blog, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Albert Shanker Institute, its officers, board members, or any related entity or organization.


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