School Reform Predictions: Easier Said Then Done

David W. Kirkpatrick Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation

School Reform Predictions: Easier Said Then Done

It’s been said the only two constants are death and taxes. Not true. There are at least two more: change and the need for change.

The need for change is particularly true of public schools in the United States, and has been since the emergence of the system with the passage of Pennsylvania’s Common School Act in 1834. Yet perhaps no other institution has been so successful in resisting change and outwitting all predictions of improvement.

Even so innovative an individual as Thomas Edison, who reportedly was awarded more patents than anyone else in history was hopelessly optimistic when he predicted that the motion picture, which he invented and subsequently improved so that pictures and sound were synchronized, would so revolutionize the schools system that within “a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

Not quite. And similar predictions on the potential for technology has proved to be similarly erroneous.

In 1945 it was William Levenson, director of the Cleveland, Ohio public schools who proclaimed that “the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.” It never happened.

Not many years later, in the 1950s and 1960s, psychologist B.F. Skinner was promoting the use of “teaching machines and programmed instruction” which, he thought, would make it possible for students to “learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom.”

As a teacher in the 1960s I recall an instance where considerable effort and planning went into creating “language laboratories,” where a foreign language classroom was subdivided into individual cubicles whereby students could simultaneously proceed with relatively individual instruction using technology. I also recall visiting one such classroom only to find that the teacher had turned off the technology and was attempting to teach the class as a unit in the usual fashion, which meant trying to do it over the walls which were on three sides of each student’s unit.

A bit closer to the mark was then-president Bill Clinton’s still-quoted remark about building “a bridge to the twenty-first century” whereby, among other things, computers would be as much a part of classrooms as blackboards.

Well, here we are in the twenty-first century and computers are certainly more common in the schools than there were during the Clinton administration but blackboards are also still with us and student achievement, drop out rates, and other indications of educational achievement are not appreciably higher than 15-20 years ago.

Other predictions along the way included one by John W. Gardner, a brilliant education leader. In his 1969 book, No Easy Victories, he wrote: “I am entirely certain that twenty years from now, we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive. ‘The pieces of the educational revolution are lying around unassembled.”

Nearly 40 years later, not a mere 20, the “pieces of the educational revolution,” if they exist, are still lying around unassembled, often not even recognized, and the “primitive” education in the schools is still tolerated.

Nor was Gardner alone. When his book was published, a well funded National Educational Finance Project involving a number of leading scholars was coming to a conclusion. When their work was published in 1970 their conclusion was virtually synonymous with Gardner’s as they wrote, “One thing that is certain is that the pressure on the American educational system, which has been intense in the last ten years, will continue to diminish as we move into the future.” It has not diminished. It has also continued the long history of such pressure being largely ineffective.

In 1991 President George H. W. Bush convened an education gathering of governors who devised Goals 2000, “the most far-reaching education plan of any President since Lyndon B. Johnson.” Not one of the Goals for 2000 was achieved by 2000. In 2001, they were repealed.

In brief, anyone looking for a career in education should become a school reformer. Not because they will succeed. But they will be assured of a lifetime career where the need never ends.
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“The President has just signed a school aid bill worth 5.5 billion dollars…large portions of that sorely needed money;..will be poured down the same narrow funnels which have proved so unhelpful to so many students in the past…And we’ll come back in one year or two years asking for more money because many of the schools are still a disaster area…” Harvey B. Scribner, Chancellor, New York City schools. Vital Speeches of the Day, August 15, 1971.
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