Monday, September 8, 2014

The Irony of 21st Century School Reform

On Friday, September 5, 2014, The New York Times carried the obituary of Michael Katz, the University of Pennsylvania professor, historian and social theorist probably best remembered today for his influential 1990 book, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. In that seminal book and other writings, Professor Katz was harshly critical of the Reagan and later Clinton administration take on the poor and programs aimed at poverty.

Both Reagan and Clinton held a narrow view of poverty, he said, that essentially blamed the poor for their own poverty because of their moral failings. Poverty, Katz posited, is better understood as the result of large historic and economic trends, such as war and peace and the shifting interest of capital that favored some people and disadvantaged others.

You may wonder why I would be writing about Professor Katz on this education blog. It turns out that Katz had written a much earlier book in 1968 called The Irony of Early School Reform. With such a provocative title, I knew I had to learn more. What I discovered is astonishing. Katz examined the public school reform movement of the 1820s to 1860s in Massachusetts. What he learned may well echo in the ears of those critical of education reform today.

To boil down the gist of Katz’ argument, I have enlisted the aid of some reviewers of his original text, Jack K. Campbell in The Teacher’s College Record and Laurence R. Veyzey and Peter Kenez in the Oxford Journals.

First of all, Campbell asks, “Who were these reformers?” The answer?  “Analysis of their class interests showed they were those who controlled legislatures and commercial enterprises. They crossed political lines. They were mostly laymen. (They recruited schoolmen in their machinations by inspiring them with a "messianic" complex. Teachers were to save the world. Professionalization of their ranks was to close out opposition.)” Laymen?  Control of Legislatures? Commercial enterprises?  Messianic Complex? Hmm.

What was the world view of these 19th century reformers? “These proponents blamed their social ills on urbanism, ineffective parents, immigrants, and the 'lower stratum' in general.”

What was the goal of these reformers?  “They promoted popular education as the means to achieving what they considered a well-ordered and integrated society. At the same time, they hoped to induce both prosperity and domestic tranquility.” And  Veyzey and Kenez add, “There is no doubt as to the paternalism of the educational leaders. They sought to convert workers' children to middle-class standards of manners and taste. They aimed, through manipulation of the curriculum and the environment, to internalize the norms that would reduce crime in the streets.”

How did they hope to accomplish their goals? Again from Campbell, “Through the ‘whip hand’ of school committees, they ruthlessly attacked the rival private academies as well as the decentralized system of public school control. They sought greater concentration of power, not, as is usually supposed, to facilitate financial and social equality, but to spread costs over a broader base and take initiative away from the local district.”

How did the reformers respond when it became evident through attendance records that the “common schools” were not for the “common man”? The reformers created the “reform school." “Under the guise of penal reform, they attempted to grade prisons as well as schools and used the courts to reach the hard-core juvenile miscreants. Professor Katz chose to call this development the real beginning of compulsory education. The implication, obviously, was that the lower classes were vicious, immoral, and needful of educational correction. But the appeal for public schools was always couched in terms of social mobility.”

Where did these reformers go wrong? Katz concludes that “by making education the single panacea of reform, the promoters oversimplified the problems of industrialization and even misdirected the needed impetus for reform.”

As we can see from the work of Michael Katz, the education reformers’ playbook has not changed much in two hundred years. Today’s reformers take the same paternalistic approach to education.

·         Just how far is KIPP Charter School “no excuses” discipline from the 19th century reform school? Certainly, charter school disciplinary practices can be seen in the same paternalistic light that Katz has shown on the 19th century reformers.

·         Reformy billionaire Bill Gates and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have both recently blamed children and their parents for American students’ “lack of motivation.” Reformers think that if only people would do what reformers think is the right thing all would be well.

·         No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Mayoral control of school boards and the Common Core State (sic) Standards all fit nicely into the reform playbook for subverting democracy through centralized control.

·         Attacks on teachers, teacher unions, pensions, tenure and seniority can all be seen as one piece with the traditional reform goal of providing education on the cheap.

·         The modern reformer argument that it is education that is the problem, not poverty and other economic and social forces, echoes the 19th century oversimplification of the problems facing the newly industrialized world.

It is apparent that over 200 years education reformers have not learned very much. Blinded by a paternalistic view of the “other” and driven by profit motives and a desire to control costs and shape the world in their own image, they fail to see the bigger picture or recognize the complexity of the problems.

I will give Professor Michael Katz the final word. Writing a new introduction to his book in 2003 Katz said:

“Very simply, the extension and reform of education in the mid-nineteenth century were not a potpourri of democracy, rationalism and humanitarianism...we must face the painful fact that this country has never, on any large scale, known vital urban schools, ones which embrace and are embraced by the mass of the community, which formulate their goals in terms of the joy of the individual instead of the fear of social dynamite or the imperatives of economic growth.”  ‘Irony’ highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails (Rosenberg,Education Update,  2003).”

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