From one point of view, the growth and development of education in the United States has been formed by perceptions of crisis. This “change-because-something-is-wrong” mentality may exist elsewhere, as well, but others will have to decide whether or not this is so.
Here is a brief and incomplete look at this history.
It begins with compulsory schooling in Massachusetts, instituted, in part, because of the perceived threat of Irish Catholics—their illiteracy, alternate Bible (not the Church of England’s King James) and its interpretation (salvation through works, not faith), alcohol abuse, and devotion to an authority (the Pope) other than the republic in which they stood.
It continues through the restrictions of professionalism and unionizing, including the founding of the NEA in 1857. Michael Katz calls this the rise of “incipient bureaucracy,” which serves administrators, budgeters, and record-keepers more than it does students in schools. Nothing wrong with professionals or unions; changes in this direction were clearly necessary in the late 19th century, but they quickly come to serve themselves and not the children in their care.
In the 1870s, “manual training” attempts to mold a (lower) class of students into a work force. Reconstruction sees the rise of public education in the south to address, in part, the new threat of the children of formerly enslaved persons.
The Blaine amendments in many states prevent taxpayers’ money from supporting parochial schools in any way. Those who take the separation of church and state in education for an entirely good and entirely given interpretation of the first amendment would do well to look at the anti-Catholic sentiment behind these laws (which were passed in reactionary states because they could not pass the U.S. Congress).
Kindergartens are wonderful places for children—maybe, mostly—but their rise in the 1880s is, in part, due to further waves of immigrants in need of assimilation to a mostly white, Anglo-American culture.
In the 1890s, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) promotes vocational education to continue to deal with immigrant labor in factories and because of the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution in producing unskilled laborers.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, institutionalizes “separate but equal” racism for the next sixty years, including in the construction, funding, and staffing of schools.
The progressive era derives from Jane Addams’ work at Hull House and her attempt to educate young female immigrants. Clearly, turning immigrants into Americans may be said to be a primary driving force in the creation of systematic public education in this country.
Terman, Hall, and the Stanford-Binet IQ tests seek to sort first soldiers for World War I, and, shortly thereafter, students, based on innate and quantifiable “intelligence.” Brave new world, here we go. Despite a century of subtle manipulation, SAT tests are still no more than IQ tests.
The Scopes trial of 1925 brings the creationists’ challenge to science, marking a struggle that continues today in which religious extremists attempt to influence curricula and textbook publishers.
In the 1930s, it seemed to many in the U.S. that capitalism was in decline and that, without socialism or a strong, perhaps fascist, leader in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini, we would fail politically and economically. George Counts’ “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” is a work wrought by a late, chastened “progressive” thinker who cannot foresee the dehumanizing excesses of fascism and totalitarianism.
Rudolf Flesch, an Austrian, introduces phonetics and fear with “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in the 1950s.
Brown v. Topeka, KS, Board of Ed. overturns Plessy v. Ferguson, marks the rise of civil rights, but leads, eventually, to busing and other questionable (if honorable) attempts to level an uneven playing field and their unintended consequences (“white flight,” etc.).
The Space Race, a creation, again, of fear of the perceived successes of totalitarian socialism, leads to post-Sputnik educational reform and the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which quickly gives us so-called “New Math.”
Since 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” followed by “America 2000,” “Goals 2000,” and “No Child Left Behind,” we have participated in the questionable rise of standardized testing and all the ballyhoo and anti-education that accompanies it.
Assuming there’s some truth to my interpretation, we should ask ourselves some questions about this century and a half of haphazard history.
Are our children well served by an educational system born out of and continually reformed by perceptions of failure and crisis?
Who is served by the fear and foment of this mode? Is it our children and those who know them best—teachers, parents, psychologists—or is it, more likely, politicians, textbook publishers, educational technologists, and interest groups led by extremists?