Excerpted from “The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling” by Jal Mehta. Published by Oxford University Press
In late 2001, three months after the September 11 attacks, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed both House and Senate with strong bipartisan majorities and was signed by a Republican president. Promising to use the power of the state to ensure that all children were proficient in reading and math by 2014, proponents heralded the act as the greatest piece of federal education legislation since the creation of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. By requiring the states to set high standards, pairing them with assessments that measured whether students were achieving those standards, and holding schools accountable if students failed to do so, NCLB, in the eyes of its sponsors, would close achievement gaps and make America’s schools the envy of the world.
A decade later, the bloom is off the rose. While almost everyone today continues to share the aim of leaving no child behind, the act itself has come in for criticism from many quarters, to the point that Bush’s former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings declared that NCLB is now a “toxic brand” in American politics. Careful studies of the implementation of NCLB have shown that it has done what less bullish observers might have predicted from the outset. It has increased the focus on the education of poor and minority students, but it has not provided schools with needed tools to create higher quality schooling for these students. There has been improvement in some national test scores (e.g., 4th and 8th grade math), while others have remained largely unchanged (e.g., 4th and 8th grade reading ). Even accounting for the progress in math, there is no sign that the reforms have had a significant impact in closing achievement gaps or in improving America’s mediocre international educational standing. Particularly in the most troubled schools, there has been rampant teaching to the test and some outright cheating. In-depth studies have shown that some schools now devote a large part of their year to test prep; Atlanta and DC public schools have both contended with widespread cheating scandals. There are substantial concerns that simplistic testing is crowding out richer forms of learning. While reasonable people continue to disagree about the legacy and future of No Child Left Behind, there is broad agreement that it has not stimulated the kind of widespread improvement that we want and need for our schools.
This outcome might have been surprising if it were the first time policymakers tried to use standards, tests, and accountability to remake schooling from above. But NCLB was actually the third such movement. In the Progressive Era, newly empowered superintendents sought to use methods of rational administration, including early standards, tests, and accountability measures, to make schools more efficient and effective. In the 1960s and 1970s, newly empowered state departments of education sought to use state standards, assessments, and accountability to clarify goals and improve school performance. Not once, not twice, but three different times, school reformers have hit upon the same idea for how to remake American schools. The surprise is less that results have not met expectations than that we have repeatedly placed a high degree of faith in reforms promising to rationalize schools from above. After all, how many other policies were cochampioned by George W. Bush and Edward Kennedy?
This is about these repeated efforts to “order” schools from above. It seeks to answer a series of questions about these movements. Perhaps the most important question is the most basic: Why have American reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results at best? What assumptions about human nature, individual psycholog y, organizational sociolog y, teachers, and students underlie these repeated efforts to “rationalize” schooling ? Politically, why have the recent movements triumphed despite the resistance of the strongest interest group in the arena, the teachers unions? Why do these movements draw support from both liberals and conservatives? In the most recent movement, why did a Republican president push for the most powerful version of this vision and in so doing buck the traditions of his own party and create the greatest expansion of the federal role in education in the country’s history? What have been the consequences of these rationalizing movements, not just for test scores, but for the teaching profession, for educational and social justice, and for the shape of the educational enterprise as a whole? And finally, if not rationalization of schools, then what? Is there an alternative that is more likely to yield the results that we seek?
How Schooling Was Rationalized over the Course of the 20th Century
In what follows, I tell the story of how schooling was rationalized over the course of the 20th century. The story starts in the Progressive Era (1890–1920), when an educational crisis was identified by a group of muckraking journalists, who used the power of the press to expose what they saw as a corrupt, nepotistic, and highly inefficient patchwork of schooling. This crisis was seized upon by a group of “administrative progressives”; using the newly ascendant ideas of Taylorism, they sought to develop a system of efficient, rationally governed schools. At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable and derive the most bang for their buck. Then, as now, teachers charged that such movements were wrongly applying the logic of industry to schools and argued that education had a deeper “bottom line” than could be measured through actuarial techniques. Ultimately, however, they were overwhelmed by the administrative progressives, who were able to tap into political allies from both parties as well as the legitimacy bestowed by industry. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic “one best system” of city administration that still persists today. Universities were a major supporter of this effort, as newly formed departments and schools of education, seeking to establish their scientific bona fides, embraced scientific management in the training of (primarily male) superintendents and distanced themselves from the pedagogical training of the (primarily female) teaching force.
If the Progressive Era created the organizational imprint for the rationalization of schooling, a now almost forgotten standards movement in the 1960s and 1970s reenergized the desire for scientific management of schools, this time at the state rather than the district level. The key document in framing the crisis this time was the Coleman Report, which highlighted the ways in which educational inputs did not translate into educational outputs and thus motivated legislators to see schooling as a production function that needed to be made more efficient. Although overshadowed by more spectacular conflicts over desegregation, community control, and open schooling, the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s generated more than 70 state laws seeking to create educational accountability and hundreds of articles, pamphlets, and books about how to create more efficient and accountable educational systems. The supporting logic this time came not only from industry but also from the US Defense Department, whose pioneering quantitative techniques were transposed to education. Teachers and other educators again decried what they saw as a mindless regimen of quantification; they argued, much as they do today, that it was unfair to hold them responsible for outcomes that were created at least partially outside the schools. While this movement was only partially successful because it was unable to generate broad and deep political momentum, it did set the stage for what followed. By creating state assessments and the template for state standards-based reform, the movement forged a bridge between the district-level rationalization of the Progressive Era and the state and federal rationalization at the end of the century.
Developments in the 1960s and 1970s brought schools under fire, but the driving force behind the modern standards and accountability movement was the linking of educational to economic concerns in the 1980s. The impetus this time was the famous A Nation at Risk report, which framed the educational problem in dire economic terms and launched an avalanche of state-level efforts at reform. Again, these reforms were popular on both the political left and right: the left saw in standards a way to create greater uniformity across the school system; the right saw in accountability a way to impose greater pressure on an unresponsive public bureaucracy. With education cast as an economic development issue, state legislators and governors became involved in an arena that had previously been left primarily to local schools and school boards. The convergence of the states around standards in turn enabled federal legislation in an arena where the federal government had historically lacked legitimacy: it allowed federal law to pigg yback on an already established state consensus. First Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush—both former governors with state records on education—pushed for legislation that would make standards and accountability a requirement of federal aid. The culmination of this effort was No Child Left Behind, which required states to hold schools accountable for meeting standards and to impose an escalating series of consequences on schools that failed to do so. What began at the turn of the 20th century as a movement from highly variable one-room schoolhouses to a district-level “one best system” had by century’s end become a national effort to use the power of the federal government to create uniformity across the nation’s public schools.
This is a story of both cycles and trends. The three reform movements share certain features of organizational rationalization. In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control, hallmarks of the rationalizing process. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators. Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their bidding. Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data-driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes. Across the decades, the essence of the rationalizing vision has remained remarkably unchanged.
At the same time, these cycles of policy reform have overlain an evolving set of institutional, political, and social trends. One such trend is the move away from locally controlled schooling. Progressive Era reforms transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the “one best system,” shifting power from the teacher and the school to the superintendent who ran the district. The 1960s reforms, building on this organization at the local level, asked schools and districts to become accountable to their states. The most recent reforms have further expanded the role of the states and built federal reforms on top of these state efforts.
The Allure of Order
Across this history, we see some recurring themes. The first is the outsized faith that Americans have placed in the tools of scientific management as a mechanism for improving schools. Reliance on the techniques of American industry, an unshakable faith in science, and a belief in the ability to remake ourselves by remaking our schools have created a potent combination. Each of these movements has been justified on the grounds that it would bring objective data to a “soft” and undisciplined field and standardization to a highly variable social landscape. Each was bolstered by attaching its claims to higher status fields, particularly business, but also the Defense Department, and leading management ideas from the academy and industry. Despite the fact that both experience and research has told us that teaching is not like factory work, that it requires skill and discretion as opposed to the following of rules and procedures, we continue to be attracted to the idea that if we can only get the right outcome targets in place, we will be able to “order” the whole system for the better. Scientific management also seems to promise that the answer can be found without confronting difficult questions of distributive justice; we persist in the illusion that science combined with policy can fix our problems without requiring any difficult choices or tradeoffs.
The second recurring theme is the inability of the educational profession to take control of its sphere, creating a long-standing susceptibility to these external movements for reform. Unlike law, medicine, or higher education, teaching was institutionalized as a “semiprofession”: it lacks lengthy training, a distinctive knowledge base, an ability to exclude unqualified practitioners, and standards of practice that govern its daily work. Moreover, since teaching was institutionalized in the Progressive Era within a bureaucratically administered hierarchy, teachers did not possess the kind of guild power seen in stronger professions. Instead, teachers sat at the bottom of implementation chains; their primary responsibility was to implement the ideas created by others. The great expansion of teacher unionization in the 1960s succeeded in giving teachers more political influence and higher pay, but it also further institutionalized teachers as labor rather than as professionals ready to control their own sphere. The weakness of the field has left it highly susceptible to external logics, particularly to business ideas that promise to improve the educational bottom line.
The third recurring theme is the double-edged nature of movements to impose scientific rationality on schooling. As Weber famously noted, rationalization creates order out of chaos, but it does so at the cost of creating an “iron cage” that often emphasizes the measurable to the exclusion of the meaningful. Both sides of this equation are important; there are legitimate reasons why policymakers seek to rationalize schools: they are trying to decrease the variation that protects privilege and perpetuates inequality. But at the same time, trying to do this by specifying simple and easily measured outcomes and raising the stakes for achieving those outcomes tends to produce education focused more on preparing students for tests than on developing genuine learning. The details may be education specific, but the double-edged nature of the process is pure Weberian rationalization.
This combination has produced an alluring but ultimately failing brew. By comparative standards, America has a weak welfare state, a decentralized education system, a segregated and unequal social geography, an underprofessionalized educational field, and very high expectations for its schools. Within this context, “crises” of schooling are inevitable; critics need only point out the very real variation in outcomes or the gaps between what schools are producing and what we wish them to achieve. Policymakers, in turn, quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy. They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports. Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution. Backed by science and drawing on the logic of industry, it promises to impose efficiency across an unruly educational landscape—centralizing a decentralized system, holding educators accountable, and protecting taxpayer money. Unfortunately, standards and accountability are a weak technology to produce the outcomes policymakers seek. Improving teaching and learning requires the development of skill and expertise; simply increasing expectations does little to bring about results. Teachers, meanwhile, perceiving policymakers to be remote from the realities of their schools, are highly resistant to efforts to control them from afar. Realizing this, policymakers seek to increase the pressure and tighten a loosely coupled system, a response that only increases distrust. A downward spiral between policymakers and frontline practitioners is the result. Particularly where students are most unable to reach the targets, teaching to the test becomes the norm, and a reform initially advanced in the name of improving educational quality can drive practice toward the most anti-intellectual and least academic of ends.
Beyond Rationalization: Learning from the Past and Finding a Better Way Forward
It is incumbent upon us to learn from this history and not repeat the mistakes of the past. While most educational reforms today are at the level of program or policy, this analysis suggests that the problem is more fundamental. One of the advantages of historical analysis is that it allows one to step back and expose to scrutiny the whole range of structures and assumptions that govern current debate. To overstate only slightly, one might say that the overarching lesson is that the entire educational sector was put together backwards. The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge; we send many of them to schools afflicted by high levels of poverty and segregation; and when they don’t deliver the results we seek, we increase external pressure and accountability, hoping that we can do on the back end what we failed to create on the front end.
This largely historical analysis dovetails with an emerging body of international research on the countries that are far ahead of us on respected international assessments, particularly the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Countries (or national subdivisions) that lead the PISA, including Singapore, Shanghai, Canada, Finland, South Korea, and Japan, very broadly share a model one could see as the inverse of ours: they draw teachers from among their most talented people, prepare them extensively and with close attention to practice, put them in schools buffered from some of the effects of poverty by social welfare supports, and give them time while in school to collaborate to develop and improve their skills. In some cases, as in Finland, such practices largely obviate the need for testing and external accountability, because selection and preparation on the front end makes extensive monitoring on the back end unnecessary. While the United States remains the world leader in assessments and accountability, Finland and Shanghai are the leaders in student performance, and they get there in an entirely different way.
This way of cutting the problem differs from much of the polarized thinking that currently governs the American school debate. On the one side are Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, who insist that the system is broken, that we need to infuse new providers and create greater levels of external testing and accountability. On the other side is Diane Ravitch, who argues that testing has corrupted the schools and that if only we could throw out the tests and return to the neighborhood schools of yesteryear, everything would be all right. The argument here is that both are partially right but also partially wrong : Rhee and Klein are right to have faith in some of the new providers (many of whom are embracing the international lessons in terms of selecting talent and carefully preparing them for practice), and they are also right that the culture of bureaucratic districts tends to produce a compliance mentality that we need to escape. But they are too comfortable with simplistic external assessments and too focused on developing increasingly intricate test-based teacher evaluation systems. Conversely, Ravitch is right about the corrosive effects of testing but is not honest enough about the failings of the current and past systems and the real changes that would be needed to generate improvement at scale.
A third position is needed, one grounded in avoiding the mistakes of the past and drawing on the best exemplars abroad as well as the best providers here. This position would be the inverse of our current approach of providing little up front and demanding heavy accountability on the back end. We would instead begin by building a more relevant knowledge base, anchored in practice, one that would underpin efforts to create consistently high-quality teaching. We would then develop a human capital pipeline, which would allow us to select from among our best, train them extensively, and then give them opportunities to grow once in the classroom. Having developed a corps of knowledgeable teachers that we were confident would meet professional standards, we would then be able to increase the level of autonomy of schools, which could be freed of bureaucratic regulations and empowered to create the kind of thoughtful and intentional communities that both students and teachers deserve. The role of the higher levels of the system would be to support and enable this work on the ground rather than seek to control it from above.