School: The Story of American Public Education

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Esteemed historians of education David Tyack, Carl Kaestle, Diane Ravitch, James Anderson, and Larry Cuban journey through history and across the nation to recapture the idealism of our education pioneers, Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann. We learn how, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, massive immigration, child labor laws, and the explosive growth of cities fueled school attendance and transformed public education, and how in the 1950s public schools became a major battleground in the fight for equality for minorities and women. The debate rages on: Do today's reforms challenge our forebears' notion of a common school for all Americans? Or are they our only recourse today?

This lavishly illustrated companion book to the acclaimed PBS documentary, School, is essential reading for anyone who cares about public education.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
From windowless Puritan classrooms to one-room prairie schoolhouses to digitally connected home-schoolers, American public education has been a focus of change, idealism, and struggle. This accessible history serves as the companion volume to the PBS series.
From the Publisher
[An] exemplary, thoroughly readable account.
-Publishers Weekly

"This book takes you through the history of how the idea of public education began, to where we are right now. . . . It's so beautifully done, judiciously done, and I'm really proud to help it along."
—Meryl Streep

Publishers Weekly
Chronologically arranged in four sections (1770-1890, 1900-1950, 1950-1980, 1980-2000), this anthology covers much ground (charter, common, frontier and dame schools) at a brisk, engaging pace. These five eminent scholars catalogue the experiences of African-Americans, Catholics, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, people with disabilities and girls in an educational system originally designed for Protestant white boys. Tyack and company nimbly chart changing educational philosophies (Horace Mann, John Dewey, the Gary Plan, Archbishop John Hughes) and public debates, such as those aroused by the introduction of IQ tests in the 1920s, the 1957 launching of Sputnik (prompting fear that Soviet education outshone U.S. education) and the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, an assessment of the state of public education by "a presidential commission of corporate and public leaders and educators." And there are surprises "black literacy soared in the decades after the Civil War, from 5 percent to 70 percent"; "New York's English-only curriculum was radical" in the 1910s; in the 1930s two-thirds of Los Angeles's Mexican-American students were classified as "slow learners... even mentally retarded" after the introduction of IQ tests; Lyndon Johnson was a schoolteacher; and in 1970 women received "less than 1 percent of all medical and legal degrees." This exemplary, thoroughly readable account of a "complex and controversial and open-ended" subject is enhanced by 125-plus photos and illustrations. (Sept. 12) Forecast: This companion to the PBS documentary series will attract a significant readership. Though balanced, it will stir controversy at a time when reform leans toward business modelsand Horace Mann's belief "that all citizens" are responsible for the education of all children is being challenged. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This companion volume to a PBS documentary series airing this month is filled with over 125 historic photographs, essays by five prominent education historians, and text based on the documentary script, which is narrated by Meryl Streep on television. The photos provide chronological perspective by showing school-themed paintings, portraits of eminent educators, pages from early primers, and old pictures of students, teachers, classrooms, and equipment. Sections of the book correspond to the documentary's parts. "The Educated Citizen" covers 1770-1890 and describes public education's Colonial beginnings. "You Are an American" spans the first half of the 20th century, when John Dewey's progressive philosophy was a major influence. "Separate but Unequal" tells of the nation's struggles to deal with racial, cultural, and bilingual issues, and "A Nation at Risk?" discusses how education policymakers have responded to the 1983 mandate for school reform. Though not as comprehensive as many longer works (e.g., Joel Spring's The American School, 1642-2000 (McGraw-Hill, 2000. 5th ed.), this is still a good overview of the history of U.S. public education and succeeds nicely as a companion to the TV show. None of the other single-volume American education histories are very well illustrated, if at all, and the pictures here are probably the main attraction. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Will Hepfer, SUNY at Buffalo Libs. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A direct and well-written text and the liberal use of historical photographs make School one of the few books available on the history of education in America written for the layperson. Although some earlier material is included, the bulk of the text and photographs covers the founding of a universal public-educational system in the mid to late 19th century to the inclusion battles of the early 1970s. A single flaw of this otherwise worthy book is a bias against the more bottom-line and business-oriented influences following the "America at Risk" report in the early 1980s. Those looking for a harsh critique of the American school system will not find it here. The history of alternative schooling is not included, and there's not much coverage given to curriculum-development issues such as the phonics/whole-language debate, and other methodologies. The roughly chronological layout allows readers to trace the roots of the philosophy and rituals still surrounding the average public-school day for most students. This information will be the primary attraction for teen readers, as the whys and hows of their school day unfold beneath their fingertips. A companion book for the "School: The Story of American Public Education" documentary series on PBS television.-Sheryl Fowler, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This earnest tie-in to a PBS series provides a solid introduction to the roller-coaster ride that has been public education in the US for the last 200 years. The goals and aspirations, and the contentions, that have shaped public education, write the authors, find their reflection in a wider societal context as to who we are as a nation. As the notion of a common school arose after the Revolutionary War, there was little doubt that schooling was for the common good, but would the different states find in it a common purpose? No-the schools would more likely display the social diversity of the country, showcase ethnic and racial bias, and serve as arenas for political struggles. It is fascinating to watch here as the public-education agendas rise and fall like great waves. The common-school movement-with its grassroots governance and consensual curriculum (meaning republicanism braced with Protestant moral teaching)-gave way to the policy elites in the early 20th century, when the exaltation of the expert meant out with the lay teachers and rural school trustees, in with the education know-it-all. Then, in a rush, the democracy of difference, extolling big schools with grand centralized planning, followed closely by the small-is-beautiful movement, calling for a return of standards and greater parental involvement, breaching the buffer that had protected school administrations from participatory democracy. Running through the whole process, now quietly, now with vigor, were the needs of cultural and economic democracy. All of this is amply illustrated here-including essays by education historians Carl Kaestle on common schools, Diane Ravitch on the immigrant experience, James Anderson onquestions of race, and Larry Cuban on the insidious idea of education as a consumer product-including most remarkably that government-distrusting, tax-pinching, independent Americans have any public education at all. A worthy attempt to highlight the common good of public education that for all its blisters and boils, is at least a stab at democracy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807042212
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 248,487
  • Product dimensions: 7.01 (w) x 9.99 (h) x 0.49 (d)

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The public school as we know it was born in the mid-nineteenth century. Its founders called it the "common" school. Common schools were funded by local property taxes, charged no tuition, were open to all white children, were governed by local school committees, and were subject to a modest amount of state regulation. They arose through two decades of debate prior to the Civil War in the Northeast and the Midwest of what is now the United States and, later in the nineteenth century, in the South and the West. But to understand those debates we must go back to eighteenth-century colonial America. There we can see how people handled education without public schooling.

    In eighteenth-century America, the institutions closest to our public schools were the short-term schools supported by towns in the northern British colonies. Town meetings often voted to provide elementary schooling for ten or twelve weeks a year. They often favored boys over girls and charged parental fees to supplement the town's support. While this may seem like some partial precursor of the public schools, it is important to note that if we think of education more broadly conceived and not just as schooling, the colonial mode of education was very different from that of the late nineteenth century. Across all the colonies—French and Spanish colonies as well as in British America—schooling was less important in the education process than it was in the later, industrial world. These societies were largely agricultural. Work was learned on farms and plantations. Families carried most of the responsibility for children's learning, along with churches, neighbors, and peers. Not only was schooling less important and thus not very extensive, but in general it was not free, not governmental, and not secular. Some free education was available in the church charity schools of East Coast cities, the mission and presidio schools of the Southwest, and the town schools of the northern British colonies, but in many areas these schools were scarce and transitory. To the extent that education involved schooling, parents were responsible for it. They hired tutors, sent their toddlers to "dame schools" for the ABCs, joined other parents to support subscription schools, sent their children to a mission or charity school, or voted in town meetings to support schools on a year-to-year basis through a combination of parental fees and town support. Or they did nothing about schooling.

    These arrangements meant that family wealth, race, and gender had a strong impact on how much formal education a child received. But did this colonial mode of education work well in these eighteenth-century societies? It did, in the sense that education was not a controversial public issue, and the education levels required of the work world were modest. The people who had a say in such matters—mostly male property owners—thought that leaving education in the hands of parents and churches was appropriate. Still, dynamic forces in the eighteenth century encouraged more schooling and more literacy. In the British colonies, Protestantism encouraged popular literacy, as did the cash economy that gradually spread outward from commercial cities. Political and economic tensions with England increased, and the colonists avidly read English and continental theorists on the nature of republics and balanced government. These passions spawned newspapers and political pamphlets. The franchise gradually expanded among white males, and by the time of the American Revolution, rudimentary literacy levels (measured crudely by the ability to sign one's name) were about 90 percent among white men and at least 60 percent among white women.

    The idea that schooling depended on local and largely familial initiatives was a tradition firmly embedded in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution, but this colonial mode of education had proven capable of expansion. Nonetheless, some of the famous political leaders of that era—notably Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster were concerned about the uneven nature of schooling in different communities and anxious about the educational needs of the new nation. They thought that schooling should be not only more widespread but also more systematic and more publically supervised. They argued that the survival of the young republic depended upon educated citizens who could understand public issues, who would elect virtuous leaders, and who would sustain the delicate balance between liberty and order in the new political system.

    Beneath the spirited discussions about these ideas, the colonial mode of education persisted, unperturbed. When Jefferson's plans for a state system of education in Virginia were rejected by the legislature, he complained about the "snail paced gait" of education reform. Rush's plans met a similar fate in the Pennsylvania legislature. New York State used profits from some public land sales to support local schooling in the 1790s, but when the money ran out, the program ended. Connecticut similarly distributed some funds from the sale of its Western Reserve lands, and Massachusetts had a weakly enforced 1789 law directing towns to provide elementary schools. The conditions in the new republic did not dispose people to change the way they educated their children, despite the rhetoric of their leaders about the fragility of the new government. The colonial mode of education was working well enough for most voters, and they did not want more government involvement in this matter.

    By the 1840s, things had changed dramatically. The states of the Northeast were undergoing an industrial revolution. The number of cities in the region with a population of more than 10,000 increased from three in 1800 to forty-two by 1850. Textile production shot up. Canals and then railroads crisscrossed the area and the nation. Immigration swelled, bringing large numbers of Roman Catholics to a predominantly Protestant nation. These factors formed the necessary preconditions for the creation of public schools. The pace of change and the urgency of new social problems fostered the development of new institutions.

    The force of the changes was most visible and severe in the coastal and industrial cities, where alarmed reformers of the early national period adopted various approaches to problems of poverty and vice, some copied from England. The dominant mode was represented by nondenominational charity schools and tract societies, which treated poverty as a defect of character, not a defect of the system. Charity schools targeted the poor as a separate group, and they were governed by independent boards, not the government. In these respects they did not resemble public schools. On the other hand, in large cities like New York and Philadelphia, these charity schools were organized into centrally supervised systems, and they literally became the public schools in the mid-nineteenth century. At that point they attempted to move beyond their poor constituents to attract the children of more affluent parents. School reformers of that day denigrated the charity schools for isolating the poor, but they admired the highly organized urban systems that had evolved from them. This admiration of large, bureaucratized urban school systems was a staple among educational reformers for over a century.

    Perhaps it is not fruitful to argue about whether the "true" prototype of the common school is the urban charity school of the early nineteenth century or the small-town school of colonial New England, but it is worth noting that in the Northeast there was a direct institutional connection between schools for the moral education of the urban poor and the public schools of the mid-nineteenth century. Some of this same impulse to address and regulate social deviance can be seen in the Whig Party's espousal of state institutions beyond the urban context, a repertoire that included not only canals, railroads, normal schools, and common schools but also prisons, almshouses, and insane asylums.

    Although the Midwestern states were newer, more agricultural, and less densely populated, they joined in the common school movement. Many settlers had migrated from the Northeast, so they brought with them traditions of ad hoc town schools, but they also debated and ultimately adopted the more ambitious and governmental approach of the common school reforms. In doing so, they cited both eastern models and changes in other Midwestern states. Their region partook of the dynamic economic developments of the day: a transportation revolution that fostered national markets, the growth of cities, and the presence of large numbers of immigrants. These developments raised issues about moral education, common public values, and education for economic expansion. Towns competed with each other to develop their institutions, hoping to become county seats and rail centers. A heady mixture of capitalism, republican government, and religious diversity brought much conflict to antebellum America, but it also produced institutional innovation.

    These conditions were necessary but not sufficient to establish the rudimentary state common school systems. That development took leadership and two decades of political struggle. Many voting Americans opposed the intervention of state government into the process of education, even in the 1840s and 1850s. People in small rural districts feared the interference of the state, as did some religious groups. The Congregationalists in Massachusetts and the Quakers in Indiana continued to shape the curriculum of local schools with their distinctive beliefs. The fears of these various opponents were well founded. Common school reformers moved gradually to force the consolidation of small districts into larger town systems and to eliminate sectarian religious practices from the schools, urging instead a more generalized Protestant version of Christianity. Party polities played a role as well. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and many other school reformers were Whigs, and many Democrats looked upon the common school reform as a Whig invention. They criticized its centralizing features as "Prussian" and argued for local control. Urban Catholics complained about the Protestant biases of the fledgling public schools, providing yet another source of opposition and a reproach to the reformers' claims that public schools were "common" to all.

    Thus the debate was long and hard fought, in each state. In 1840 a predominantly Democratic opposition mustered 43 percent of the votes in the Massachusetts legislature in an effort to oust Horace Mann and abolish his position. Two years later a similar challenge in Connecticut succeeded, costing Henry Barnard his job. In some states, legislation to encourage consolidation of district schools was passed, then repealed, then passed again, over a period of years. Nonetheless, by 1860, across the Northeast and the Midwest, state laws established the position of state superintendent of instruction, with responsibilities to publicize educational causes and exemplary practices, collect and summarize statistics on education, and administer the new education laws of the state. The linchpin of the movement was laws requiring property tax support for free schools. Many states also encouraged or required district consolidation; some provided a modicum of state aid to the towns and support for teacher institutes. Some supervised teacher licensing; others provided county supervisors to oversee school practices.

    Some earlier historians celebrated this achievement as a great victory for democracy, and they chastised its opponents as ignorant or mean-spirited. More recently, other historians have emphasized the negative side—the use of schools for cultural conformism, the continued inequalities, and the racism in the system—and they have characterized its opponents as victims. I look on the mid-nineteenth-century invention of public school systems as a highly contested development, politically fragile at the time, ultimately durable, and imperfect. It widened access, nudged schools toward longer sessions, and encouraged professional development. More important, it established the practice of using local property taxes to support public schools, eliminating tuition payments for parents but bequeathing to us a system that results in drastic variations in school expenditures across communities. The mid-nineteenth-century "common" school displayed not only financial inequalities but also cultural biases, racism, and gender discrimination, values challenged but still dominant in that day and beyond.

    The common school movement moved education more fully into the public sphere and made it amenable to public policy. State system builders and urban centralizers seized the opportunity. While they attempted to coexist with local control, they also used legislation and supervision to encourage values they prized even more: free access to elementary and secondary education, a modest equalization of resources across localities, the assimilation of a diverse population, moral education for a stable society, more extensive education for a more complex economy, and the training of citizens in patriotism, political knowledge, and public affairs. Still, the policy choice was for a continuing compromise between central authority and local control a uniquely American compromise. It was not divinely ordained, and it was not perfect. All systems have price tags. A majority of Americans opted in the nineteenth century for state-regulated school systems that retained a large measure of local control and funding. Other nations have more highly standardized national systems of education. Critics of the public schools in America today have urged the government to go in the opposite direction and subsidize more variety and choice among schools.

    In my opinion, we don't profit much by arguing about whether the invention of public school systems was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. We have the benefit of hindsight, but we can make judgments only through the lenses of our own values and experiences. Hindsight helps us look at the common school movement's best impulses and its greatest failings and see them not as immutable but as experimental. We can then examine today's public schools and attempt to fashion ways to make them more equal, inclusive, and effective for the kind of education we need in the twenty-first century. In our society, the way we provide common public schooling is inherently a compromise—a balance between competing, legitimate values. We must therefore strive continually to find a creative balance between local and central direction, between diversity and standards, between liberty and equality.

Excerpted from School by . Copyright © 2001 by Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword IX
Introduction 1
Part 1 1770-1900 The Common School 11
The Educated Citigen 19
Part 2 1900-1950 As American As Public School 63
"You Are an American" 71
Part 3 1950-1980 Separate and Unequal 123
"Why Don't You Go to School with Us?" 131
Part 4 1980-2000 The Bottom Line 173
A nation at Risk? 183
Acknowledgments 215
Bibliography 219
About the Authors 223
Index 225
Photo Credits 237
Film Credits 241
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Schools are the most familiar of all civic institutions. You find them in city slums and posh suburbs, Appalachian valleys and mining towns high in the Rockies. If you fly over the prairies that stretch endlessly across the middle of the United States, you see below the farms and municipalities neatly laid out in townships composed of 36 sections. More than two centuries ago the federal government laid out these civic checkerboards and pledged that the inhabitants of the western territories could use section 16 to support education. The public ("common") schools supported by these land grants, were emblems of a common citizenship across the new nation and even newer western states, but they were also civic centers of their local communities in long-established towns as well as frontier settlements, It was an article of faith among the founding fathers that a republic could survive only if its citizens were educated. And school has continued to shape the core of our national identity. "The free common school system," Adlai Stevenson once said, is "the most American thing about America." Early in the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson argued that locally controlled public schools were key democratic institutions in two ways. By teaching correct political principles to the young, they could nurture virtuous citizens. Equally important, local control gave adult citizens a chance to exercise self-rule. In the twentieth century, John Dewey had a similar commitment to education in democracy through political socialization and democracy in education in the form of wise collective choices. For these philosophers of democracy education was a common good, not simply an individual consumer good. But achieving a sense of common purpose has never been easy. For two centuries, public school districts have been political arenas in which citizens have contended with one another. In a society as socially diverse as the United States, controversies about purposes and practices in public schooling are hardly surprising. Such policy debates express both hopes and fears about the nation. When citizens deliberate about the education of the young, they are also debating the shape of the future for the whole nation. Talk about schooling has been part of a larger attempt to define and mold what historian Thomas Bender calls "the public culture." He says that continuing contests of groups for "legitimacy and justice" have created and recreated this public culture and established " our common life as a people and as a nation." It is essential, he adds, to understand "why have some groups and some values been so much--or so little--represented in public life and in mainstream culture and schooling at any given moment in our history." To some people, the notion of common values taught in a common school seems outdated or naive at this time in history. Today, some critics deride "government schools" as inefficient, bureaucratic, and coercive. Some say that Americans are so different that shared civic values are impossible. Ethnic and racial groups attack bias in traditional accounts of American history, and debates over what should be a canon of standard knowledge reverberate in the Congress and state capitals as well as the groves of academe. By many accounts, public schools are in trouble today. Grim stories appear daily in the media about violence, high drop-out rates, and low test scores. Beyond such immediate concerns lies an uneasiness about purpose, a sense that we have lost our way. As the larger purposes that once gave resonance to public education have become muted, constituencies that once supported public education have become splintered and confused about what to do. There has always been plenty of hype and alarm in policy talk about education--the hellfire and damnation sermon followed by the certain solution. Recent talk may set a record for moving without missing a beat from tales of catastrophe to promises of Nirvana. SCHOOL does not gloss over the recent crisis of confidence or the array of practical problems in education. But it suggests that the recent maelstrom of criticism and defense of public schooling has left little space for deliberation about what unites as well as divides citizens, what part broad civic goals have played within a pluralistic society, what features of the common school are worth preserving (or not), and how education has (and has not) adapted to the remarkable pluralism of the American population. Perhaps one reason why many Americans feel that we have lost our way in education is that we have forgotten where we have been. Reformers often say that they don't want to look backwards, arguing that amnesia is a virtue in educational decision-making. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible. Everyone uses some sense of the past in everyday life, and leaders cannot escape thinking in time. The real question is whether the histories we all use in decision making enrich and ground our understanding of the choices we face. History does not proffer simple lessons. If it did, historians would probably not disagree so much with each other. But study of the past can provide context for decisions and images of possibility and constraint. The story that School tells is complex and controversial and open-ended, in keeping with the aspirations and fears and achievements and failures of citizens and educators, past and present. It explores how Americans sought to shape their society through public education. It invites readers to step back from today's formulations of problems and solutions, to think about where we have been and where we might go.


Foreign observers of American society during the century following independence often commented on how much U.S. citizens distrusted government at a distance, whether that of King George III or spendthrift state legislatures. Voters wanted to keep legislators on a short leash and kept rewriting their state constitutions to weaken government. Partly because of this deep-rooted distrust of government, Americans have, over the years, been slow to provide social and health services through public agencies (a fact well known to proponents of medical coverage for all citizens today). Thus in the middle of the nineteenth century, the advocates of public education realized that they had a job to do. They faced rugged competition from a host of private schools of many varieties. Families with resources had many choices in the educational marketplace: some public, some private, some charitable and some for profit, some sectarian and some secular. The results of this miscellaneous schooling were impressive: well before the majority of children attended public schools, both attendance in school and literacy were quite high. But by 1890, public schools became dominant, and enrolled about nine in ten pupils. Government-distrusting, tax-pinching, independent Americans might well have chosen to continue to rely on this miscellaneous collection of schools to educate their children. They did not. Instead, they chose, collectively and decisively, to establish and sustain the most universal and popular system of education in the world. In doing so, they stayed close to their roots and chose to have the most decentralized system of school governance in the world. They controlled and financed schools locally. Public education would not have thrived without this self rule. It enabled citizens to keep a close eye on their schools and to resolve issues by local majority rule. American school board members constituted the largest group of public officials in the world during the late nineteenth century. They outnumbered teachers in a number of rural states. But local self-rule leads to a second puzzle: why was this grassroots schooling so similar, at least across the North, when there was no central ministry of education to set standards and enforce regulations? Adam Smith claimed that the "invisible hand" of the market worked more effectively than a directive government. In the United States a hidden hand of ideology, a common set of political and social values, helped to produce similar common schools scattered across the nation. Shared beliefs encourage people to build institutions, and over time citizens came to believe that schooling was a public good essential to the health of the nation. Individuals did benefit from schooling, yes, but even more important, civic society depended on instilling common values. But what were these values to be? An inclination to compete lay deep in the American grain. Throughout the nineteenth century, churches competed enthusiastically with each other for souls and members; how could they agree on common principles? The nineteenth century was also a time of lusty contest between the political parties; they delighted in puncturing the claims and pretenses of the opposition. And raw conflict--red in tooth and claw--marked much of the economic history of the time. So why did Americans hope that they could agree about the moral and civic lessons that schools should teach when they clashed so vigorously in most other arenas? Horace Mann, the great nineteenth century school reformer, and thousands of other state and local leaders had a plan. Surely, they said, the warring religious groups could call a truce at the door of the common school for the sake of the children and the nation. They developed an argument that they thought was self-evident: the main purpose of public education is to develop good character; character is based on religion; religion is based on the central teachings of the Bible; therefore, moral education should be based on reading the Bible without sectarian comment. This "non-sectarian" religion of consensus appealed to the Protestant mainstream that supplied most of the leadership of public education. Catholics clearly saw that this set of propositions did not match their doctrine. In response, they decided to challenge the common school by creating their own schools. Paralleling the doctrine of non-sectarian moral teaching was the claim that political education could be non-partisan. In this theory, the common school should teach only those pure republican principles and practices that united Americans. This pedagogy of patriotism is most obvious in American history textbooks that glorified the founding fathers. The compilers of the famous McGuffey Readers promised that they contained no sectarian or partisan accounts and included only those values that everyone (should) subscribe to. There was a huge market for such a political and religious common denominator: the McGuffey Readers racked up sales of over 122,000,000 copies. The creation of the common school, with its grassroots governance and consensual curriculum, was one of the triumphs of nineteenth century reform. Fueled by a powerful republican ideology and aspiring to create universal education, the common school movement appealed to millennial hope and fear. But by the turn of the twentieth century, reformers grew dissatisfied with local self-rule and a common curriculum.


Once again, the country came to a turning point in the development of its system of education, as leaders redefined democracy in the new urban and industrial society of the early twentieth century. Their vision of democracy in the twentieth century exalted experts and denigrated widespread lay participation. Local control by elected school committees had set a democratic stamp on public education, but policy elites at the turn of the twentieth century complained that the efforts of rural school trustees fell short. They gave local citizens just what they wanted: schooling that was cheap, that reflected local notions of useful learning, and that gave employment to local teachers who fit in well with the community. One leader denounced local control by district trustees as "democracy gone to seed." How could penny-pinching and provincial rural trustees prepare youth for the twentieth century? Elite reformers also believed that the leadership in urban districts was poor. They felt that the central urban school committees were far too large and delegated decisions to sub-committees of trustees rather than to the experts. They felt that too many of the wrong people ran things, and they pointed especially to corrupt machine politicians and to immigrants who wanted the schools to respect their cultures and to hire their daughters. How could urban schools become efficient and professional, how could they "Americanize" immigrants, with all these foxes in the chicken coops? Worse, many cities still retained ward boards that were relics of the old decentralized district system. "Take the schools out of politics!" In the early twentieth century, that was the call to battle of advocates of a new concept of democracy in public education. These policy elites decided that the older concepts of common school governance and curriculum were antediluvian. Democracy, they insisted, did not mean lay people running the schools, as trustees did all over the country. Democracy at its best meant administration of the public's schools by specially trained experts (superintendents and their staffs). A school system resembled a public hospital: a lay board might provide general oversight, but professionals should be in charge. The reformers wanted to consolidate small rural districts and assert more control of country schools by counties and states. Taking city schools out of politics meant radically reducing the size of city school boards and abolishing ward boards, relics of the old decentralized district system. As they sought to centralize and standardize education, they rejected the old idea that democracy demanded a common curriculum for all students. The intelligence and future destiny of pupils clearly differed, and thus the curriculum should be differentiated to match their abilities and needs. Democratic schools provided opportunities to all students to find niches suited to their different talents. Equality meant difference, not sameness, of treatment. The public school, then, became an "instrument of democracy" run by a-political experts, with authority "in the hands of those who will really represent the interests of the children." Such leaders would be able to educate all children according to their abilities and destiny in life. The people owned the schools, but experts ran them, just as corporate CEOs managed their firms. That was the new version of democracy in governance: a socially and economically efficient system that adapted schooling to different kinds of students, thereby guaranteeing equality of opportunity. The redefinition of democracy and reorganization of schools became the conventional wisdom of educators for the next decades. Big districts and big schools, they said, were better than small ones. A centralized and specialized administrative structure was more efficient and accountable than a decentralized and simple one. Differentiation of the curriculum into several tracks and hundreds of electives generated greater equality of opportunity for students of varied ability and for the different ethnic and "racial" groups.


Beginning in the 1960s, in an effort once again to change the course of history, reformers challenge the redefinition of democracy and the organizational changes introduced in the first half of the twentieth century. They argue that small schools are better, that big districts should be decentralized, that all students should be helped to meet the same high academic standards, that academic segregation of students into tracks limits their learning, and that schools can benefit from strong involvement of parents in educational reform. Reformers today recognize that no amount of wishful thinking can transform politics of education into neutral administration, for schooling is and always has been intrinsically value-laden. The question is not whether politics but whose politics. In the last fifty years the history of school governance is in large part the story of efforts to breach the buffers erected around schools during the first half of the twentieth century to protect them from participatory democracy. Groups that were excluded or unfairly treated__for example, African Americans, Latinos, the handicapped, women__have organized in social movements and have sought access and influence in public education. Besides employing traditional democratic beliefs and political strategies, these new voices have also expanded notions of democracy; they speak, for example, of cultural democracy, of equal respect and equal rights for all cultural groups, and of economic democracy to close the gap between rich and poor school districts. The politics of education has never been more fluid and complicated than today. As in earlier periods of contentiousness, some critics--especially some advocates of vouchers and choice--have put a new spin on the concept of democracy. The challenge this time is even more fundamental than the earlier attempt to rely on experts. They do not seek to replace politics with professional administration. Indeed, they think public education already too bureaucratic, too constrained by government regulations inflicted by special interest groups. The solution, they say, is to replace politics with markets. Treating schooling as a consumer good and giving parents vouchers for the education of their children solves the problem of quality and decision_making: parents choose the schools that will best suit their children. The collective choices produced by democratic institutions produced bureaucracy and gridlock; the invisible hand of the market will lead the individual to the best personal choice. The market in education will satisfy and liberate families through competition. But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good? School provides a context for answering that question. If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, they might well ask if Americans have lost their way. Democracy is about making wise collective choices, not individual consumer choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.
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