Book Notes & Thoughts: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese


America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind,” by William J. Reese, 2011.

I subscribe to Larry Cuban’s blog, which means I get an email every few days with his historian perspective on new initiatives like Personalized Learning or Coding for All. As I work on my research to understand how change does (or does not) happen in education, I felt like some historical context might provide perspective on the conversations I am having today.

William Reese is a professor here at UW-Madison in Education Policy Studies and History, though I’ve not had the opportunity to take a class with him. I had previously read Pillars of the Republic, by Karl Kaestle and Shopping Mall High School, by Powell Farrar and Cohen, but I was particularly interested in this book about the more recent times of NCLB. Nonetheless, I learned much about the progressive era, Dewey, curriculum, urban vs. rural schools, and the wrestling of a common goal for public schools. One of the key trends that was new to me was the consistent assumption that held up urban schools as the ideal and rural schools as backwards. This is written as the dominant narrative of public schools, with some attention paid to integration orders after Brown v. Board and the different experiences of non-white and poor students in schools.

p. 13-14. “School-houses and churches are the true symbols of New England civilization, as temples, pyramids and mausoleums were the symbols of ancient civilizations,’ declared a college professor at mid[19th-]century…. Schools, he said, were not like clocks, once wound ticking of their own accord; someone needed to operate and guide them. Moreover, ‘no reform is carried in the State or the world without a reformer. Improvements originate with original minds, and are usually presented to the people by interested advocates.”

p.18. “The Scottish Enlightenment (and not its anticlerical French cousin) decisively affected intellectual life int he early republic. Especially influential in the colleges and among well-educated Protestant leaders, it stressed the possibilities of human improvement and the common-sense striving of ordinary people for right living…. Critical of predestination and original sin, Bushnell called for common schools and other moral reforms to bridge the class divisions endemic in urban America, believing that all people could exercise their free will and ‘rise’.”

p.140. “Despite what some people believed, Dewey was never a romantic educator. He certainly respected the contributions of the European child-centered romantics and their American disciples. Much had been learned from them and from the Herbartians, who in the 1890s emphasized the centrality of children’s interest in the learning process and the value of teaching subjects in closer association with each other. But they too had turned insights into panaceas, and Dewey doubted that earlier innovations such as object lessons were likely to transform the schools. Young children might learn much from concrete objects but, as other critics noted, these lessons had often become formulaic, taught step by step from primers…. [Dewey] consistently sought a clear path apart from traditionalists who wanted textbook-dominated classroom filled with passive students and romantics who glorified the child’s freedom unchecked by teacher guidance and authority.”

p.141. “Democracy, Dewey emphasized, was not a set of abstract principles but a ‘mode of associated living,’ a way of life. A democratic school, he insisted, should make all children ‘masters of their own economic and social’ fate. To direct certain children toward courses of study that limited their growth and potential and channeled them to the most marginal jobs was a travesty. ‘Democratic society,’ Dewey concluded, ‘is peculiarly dependent for its maintenance upon the use in forming a course of study of criteria which are broadly human. Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class.’ … schools were centers of academic instruction but also social institutions, where children should learn to respect the rights and opinions of others and gain exposure to the common values and ideals necessary for living in a democracy.”

This quote really meant a lot to me, especially after Tony Bryk’s keynote last spring. He quoted from John Dewey’s, The Public and Its Problems, saying that the “inherent tension between technical expertise and democratic governance,” where a small number of elites do all the thinking and the vast majority of the rest just wait to be told what to do. Tony stated that because of where schools sits as a public institution, it “is and will always be politically contested ground.” All should have the opportunity to actively engage in public problem solving.

p.181. The work that I’m doing researching the physical spaces and places of schools meant that as I read I was also looking for the role of school buildings and how they changed. “With evident pride, the editor of School Life further remarked in 1929 that ‘in other lands, the outstanding structures are monumental churches and royal palaces; Americans build monumental colleges and palatial high schools.”

p.270. “Any failure in young adults – the inability to fill out a form properly, sloppy handwriting, pour diction, poor work habits, a lack of common courtesies – often reflects poorly on schools. Whether that is fair, given all the influences that shape a person, is beside the point. Expecting more from schools leaves people perpetually unhappy, but also provides an outlet for the anger. It also allows citizens to not think about alternative explanations for school failure or reconsider their high hopes for what schools can reasonably accomplish.”

p.275. “[Goodlad (1964)] noticed that the pilot programs using innovative matierals usually appeared in wealthier districts, in the suburbs more than in rural areas or inner cities. Coming from prestigious universities, curriculum reform, he concluded, was ‘essentially a middle- and upper-middle class movement.” This has interesting relevance for the personalized learning schools that we are studying.

p. 278. Regarding the open school movement, “Johnathan Kozol, for example, who had opened a private alternative school with minority parents in Boston, wrote a searing indictment of the flower children in the countryside and the liberal-minded suburbanites who favored alternative classrooms within existing school system. In Free Schools, he questioned the purpose of creating ‘alternatives within the system’ when the system itself oppressed the poor and perpetuated capitalism. Kozol criticized those who escape to rural retreats or stayed in the city but dropped out of the political struggle.”

p.289. Still about the open school movement, “Teachers,’ the authors of this essay emphasized, ‘have their own hang-ups with open education because of their past training in closed education. Often teachers simply do not know how to capitalize on the students’ interests. Teachers are stymied by narrow, rigid conceptions of the learning process. They have not been sufficiently free from their past.”

p.294. Regarding Brown v. Board, attempts to avoid integration, and Jim Crow, Reese quotes James Conant, “If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it may well be that the ideological struggle with Communism in the next fifty years will be won on the playing fields of the public high schools of the United States.”

p.322. “Although it is doubtful that schools will yield universal success, ‘No Child Left Behind’ should be understood in its widest historical context. As John Dewey once wrote, education is the fundamental means by which Americans try to improve individuals and society.”

p.326. Description of NCLB as “yet another classic unfunded mandate.” “From its inception critics believed that Republicans who initiated “No Child” aimed to discredit the lowest performing schools (mostly filled with the poor and racial and ethnic minorities) and to open the door to more private alternatives…. In many districts, the law helped narrow the curriculum by reducing instruction in non-tested subjects such as art and music, history, and science, thus weakening a liberal education. By essentially making teachers solely responsible for student scores, it also led to more teachers to ‘teach to the test,’ which reduced the range of topics taught within examined subjects, ironically lowering standards…. one-third of America’s 98,000 schools in 2010 were rated ‘as failing, far more than any level of government can help, and the process has left many teachers demoralized.”

p.328. “In many ways, these politicians [education mayors] reflected public concern with the importance of educational credentials (if not achievement per se) in a world of declining industries, as free trade and a low-wage service economy grew. As employers after World War II increasingly used school completion to screen applicants and high school attendance and graduation became more common, the competition for economic advantages and jobs correspondingly accelerated. Demands for access to quality education became more intense as the rights revolution encouraged disadvantaged people to seek further educational opportunities for their children, which threatened the more comfortable classes, who vote more often, pay more taxes, and cannot be ignored by politicians. Americans of all backgrounds recognized that decent school credentials yielded economic benefits, so it was difficult for anyone to deny the importance fo schools for personal mobility and social progress. No politician revived Barry Goldwater’s claim in 1964 that a child could do fine without an education.”

p.330. “Asking schools to consider addressing social and political issues [as per Gallup poll results] that divide the American people inevitably leads to conflict, as citizens conclude either that the schools have usurped the authority of parents and churches or that they have failed to keep up with the times. In one breath the public demands higher academic standards and the bases, in another attention to just about every divisive social problem. Teachers are rarely asked to do less, since so many citizens seem to think that every human problem falls under the school’s purview.”

p.334. “There was nothing inevitable about the creation of free public school systems in the nineteenth century, and there is nothing inevitable about their survival or transformation in the coming decades. No one could have guessed in the early twentieth century that urban schools, widely regarded by professional educators as the model for schools everywhere, would soon fall from grace.”

Reese offers a summary of the points he has emphasized in the book:

p.334. “child-centered progressivism has triumphed rhetorically more often than in the classroom.”

p.335. “the reality that historically the public schools have never succeeded in making intellectual achievement, never mind high achievement for all, their central purpose”

p.336. “Public schools remain the most intimate expression of governmental authority in most communities.”

p.346. “For almost two centuries, nearly every campaign for social justice, human equality, and individual advancement has been waged in part in the public schools.”


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