Educational Reform Movements Research Paper Starter

Educational Reform Movements

The following article summarizes the major periods of reform in American education. Although each period of reform - the Common School Movement, the Progressive Reform Era, the Equity Movement, and the Standards-Based Reform movement - are all distinct from one another, educational reform in general shares some common characteristics. These common characteristics are discussed first, especially as they help explain the cyclical and persistent nature of reform.

Keywords Administrative progressivism; Child-centered progressivism; Committee of Ten; Common School Movement; Dewey, John; Equity Reform Movement; Intensification; Progressive Reform Movement; Restructuring; Standards-Based Reform Movement

History of Education: Education Reform Movements


Ironically, one of the most enduring characteristics of American education is the attempt to change it. In other words, educational reform has as long a history as education itself.

Historian Diane Ravitch (2000) writes, "it is impossible to find a period in the twentieth century in which education reformers, parents, and the citizenry were satisfied with the schools" (p. 13). While each period of reform has distinct characteristics, common elements and patterns have emerged as well. Before reviewing the specific periods of reform, we'll first review educational reform in general in order to better understand its cyclical and persistent nature.

Researchers and historians argue that one of the main reasons educational reform has become cyclical in nature is because reformers themselves lack a historical perspective. Hunt (2005) writes, "unfortunately, education reforms have consistently been plagued by the reformers' lack of knowledge and appreciation of the history of education" (p. 84). New reforms are doomed to fail, he argues, because they ignore the collective wisdom of generations past. Although specific examples of reoccurring reform proposals are too numerous to cite, Warren (1990) offers career ladders as a prototype; late twentieth century proposals to reward teachers based on merit, he argues, ignore the lessons to be learned from the "various types of merit salary schedules that have been adopted and subsequently discarded in school districts across the country for more than a century" (p. 59).

Another reason education reform has persisted over the years is because educators, policymakers, and parents have very different views about education - its purpose, the people it's intended to serve, and the means by which they are best served. As Horn (2002) argues, even changes that appear superficial - such as incorporating accountability measures or implementing a new teaching strategy - are representative of deep ideological and philosophical differences. Because different stakeholders have different ideas about the purpose of education, reform initiatives are often viewed as power struggles. "Educational reform is inherently political" and as power shifts from one group to another, educational practice and theory so follows (Horn, 2002, p. 5).

Unfairly or not, schools are often viewed as a vehicle through which to cure social ills or respond to new social challenges. As a result, "educational reform is [never] solely about education" (Horn, 202, p. 3). Throughout history, schools have been shaped to assimilate immigrants, prepare students for the workforce, redistribute wealth, and help the United States compete in a global economy. Even the very first schools were designed as much to create a sense of national unity as they were to develop the nation's intellect. In sum, "typically, we have thought of schools as means to other ends" (Warren, 1990, p. 77). It is no surprise, then, that as society and its needs have changed over the last century, schools continued to change as well.

Competing interests, unwillingness to learn from the past, and larger societal changes help explain why educational reform has been a significant part of the history of education in America, but the tendency for reform initiatives to fail lends insight as well. As old reforms die out with little substantial change, new reforms are offered in their place. Various explanations have been offered for reform failure, one of the most frequent being impatience on the part of reformers and the public - or, put differently, America's need for immediate gratification (Horn, 2002; Hunt, 2005). Reforms simply don't have enough time to come to fruition. Hunt (2002) also argues that many educational reforms fail because they address social problems that don't easily lend themselves to solutions offered by the scientific process (p. 20).

Schools have arguably received an unfair amount of criticism, with criticism of failed reform efforts piled on top of criticism of the schools themselves. Pogrow (1996) and others have come to their defense, arguing that systemic reform is never easily achieved, and educational reform has been at least as successful as reform in other types of complex systems. In a similar vein, Paris (1995) suggests that reform fails because we ask too much of schools to begin with. He writes, "our constant crises may simply indicate that we have high and perhaps unrealistic expectations about what schools can and should do" (p. 10). Given all that we expect, he continues, one shouldn't be surprised by our continual frustration.

Periods of Educational Reform

Educational historians classify reform movements in the United States differently. Some focus on reform in relation to curriculum development specifically, for example, while others analyze reform in relation to diversity and equity (Parkerson & Parkerson, 2001; Paris, 1995). Still others focus on the role of the government in relation to reform, looking at educational change through the lens of power and control (Horn, 2002). Nevertheless, many historians agree that educational reform in the United States can be defined according to four major periods of reform; as we progress through each, we'll touch upon specific issues such as curriculum and diversity, as well as the elements described above, such as competing ideologies and philosophies.

The Common School Movement

The Common School Movement took place in the early to mid nineteenth century, and although its impact varied somewhat from region to region, it is considered the first nationwide educational reform initiative (Warren, 1990). Prior to the Revolutionary War, colonists were participating in their own diverse educational initiatives. Even after the nation was formed, schooling varied tremendously based on community support and resources. By the early 1800s, Americans recognized the need for a more uniform educational system.

Although Americans were beginning to reach a consensus regarding the need for a common school, their motivations often differed. Some advocates argued that the formation of a common school was necessary to preserve the new republic. Thomas Jefferson wrote, for example, "universal education was 'necessary' in 'rendering the people...guardians of their own liberty'" (cited in Parkerson & Parkerson, 2001, p. 8). Similarly, others argued that education was necessary for responsible citizenship, particularly with respect to the vote. On the other hand, some common school advocates saw education not as protection against a tyrannical government, but as protection against the selfishness of man. They believed education would reduce crime, prevent 'anarchy of the masses' and create more peaceful communities (Parkerson & Parkerson, 2001).

The founders of the nation had lofty goals for the common school, and while the everyday American may have appreciated their vision, economic changes made the issue of public education most relevant for them. In the early nineteenth century, America became a market economy; while the changes presented great opportunity for advancement, they also presented equal opportunity for failure and loss of social, occupational, and economic status. As a result, individuals began looking to schools as an economic safety net, and also a potential vehicle for upward mobility (Parkerson & Parkerson, 2001).

Early Americans may have had the motivation for universal schooling before they had the means. As Warren (1990) writes, "with regard to education, the federal Constitution was silent, and no national agency or congressional committee existed to provide educational leadership" (p. 64). Amazingly, the reform initiative spread through informal networks, and created a surprising amount of consensus with regard to issues such as curriculum, teacher competency and preparation, school architecture, and measures of achievement. Of all the major periods of reform, perhaps the Common School Movement was most successful. By the mid to late 1800s most children in the north were attending school, while attendance in the south lagged only slightly. The movement was also important for establishing a link between education and citizenship, and for introducing the notion of inclusive education, available to all regardless of race, gender, religion, or social class (Warren, 1990).

The Progressive Education Era

The Civil War and subsequent reconstruction spurred educational reform initiatives (Warren, 1990), but historians generally identify the early twentieth century as the next significant period of educational reform. Known as the Progressive Era, the years between 1880 and 1930 were characterized by widespread reform, not just in relation to education, but also with regard to labor, safety and health, and basic citizenship. Immigration, the growth of U.S. cities, and the shift from an agrarian-based society to an industrial one, all contributed to dramatic changes in American society, and as a result, the call for change.

In the wake of all these changes, policymakers and educators were debating the purpose of schooling. The Committee of Ten, sponsored by the National Education Association in 1893, represented what some refer to as the humanist viewpoint (Horn, 2002). They recommended a traditional liberal curriculum - instruction in the core subjects such as classics, mathematics, science, and history -...

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