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Education reform

Education reform is a plan, program, or movement which attempts to bring about a change in educational theory or practice. Typically, "education reform" refers to a broad plan of systematic change across a community or society.


Motivations for reform

Reforms are usually proposed by thinkers who aim to redress societal ills or institute societal changes, most often through a change in the education of the members of a class of people--the preparation of a ruling class to rule or a working class to work, the social hygiene of a lower or immigrant class, the preparation of citizens in a democracy or republic, etc. The idea that all children should be provided with a high level of education is a relatively recent idea, and has arisen largely in the context of Western democracy in the twentieth century.

Many students of democracy have desired to improve education in order to improve the quality of governance in democratic societies; the necessity of good public education follows logically if one believes 1) that the quality of governance depends on the ability of citizens to make informed, intelligent choices, and 2) that education is the way to improve these abilities. Politically-motivated educational reforms of the democratic type are recorded as far back as Plato, whose book The Republic was essentially a thought experiment on education reform. In the United States of America, this lineage of democratic education reform was continued by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated ambitious reforms partly along Platonic lines for public schooling in Virginia.

Another motivation for reform is the desire to address socio-economic problems, which many people see as having significant roots in lack of education. Starting in the twentieth century, people have attempted to argue that small improvements in education can have large returns in such areas as health, wealth and well-being. For example, in Kerala, India in the 1950s, increases in women's health were correlated with increases in female literacy rates. In Iran, increased primary education was correlated with increased farming efficiencies and income. In both cases some researchers have concluded these correlations as representing an underlying causal relationship: education causes socio-economic benefits. In the case of Iran, researchers concluded that the improvements were due to farmers gaining reliable access to national crop prices and scientific farming information.

Reforms in classical times


Plato wrote one of the first proposals for systematic reform of education in The Republic. His plan required expert teaching in each field and forbade teaching by unskilled people. Famously, he said poets should not teach morals. His basic plan was to sort people by ability and train them for their positions in society. The final step of training of the highest class of person was an apprenticeship to other rulers.

Christian education in the Roman Empire

One of the most important educational debates in the time of the Roman Empire arose after Christianity had achieved broad acceptance. The question concerned the educational value of pre-Christian classical thought: given that the body of knowledge of the pre-Christian Romans was heathen in origin, was it safe to teach it to Christian children? In general, works of history, science, philosophy and literary art were preserved. Works on magic and nonchristian religions were not preserved. For example, Euclid's books on Geometry were widely used. Aristotle's works in logic, politics, law and natural science were used. Plato's Socratic debates and Aristophanes' plays included questions of philosophy, morality and ethics, and were preserved despite their occasional moral ambiguity. The writings of Herodotus and Plutarch were considered acceptable for teaching history.

Modern reforms

Education reforms in modern times arose first against neo-classical education (in America known as "humanistic" education), which resembled in many respects classical education. Motives for parting with classical methods were diverse, and included economic factors, differences in the aims of education (normalizing immigrants and the poor as opposed to training the upper and middle classes), and differences in educational philosophy.

Educational economizing in the 1800s

Prior to the advent of government-funded public schools, the primary mode of education for those of the lower classes was the charity school, pioneered during the 1800s by Protestant organizations and adapted for use by the Catholic Church and governmental bodies. Because these schools operated on very small budgets and attempted to serve as many needy children as possible, economic factors were prominent in their design.

The basic program was to develop "grammar" schools. These taught only grammar and bookkeeping. This program permits people to start businesses to make money, and gives them the skills to continue their education inexpensively from books. "Grammar" was the first third of the then-prevalent system of Classical education.

The ultimate development of the grammar school was by Joseph Lancaster, who started as an impoverished Quaker in early 19th century London. Lancaster used slightly more-advanced students to teach less-advanced students, achieving student-teacher ratios as small as 2, while educating more than a thousand students per adult. Lancaster promoted his system in a piece called Improvements in Education that spread widely throughout the English-speaking world.

Discipline and labour in a Lancaster school were provided by an economic system. Scrip, a form of money meaningless outside the school, was created at a fixed exchange rate from a student's tuition. Every job of the school was bid-for by students in scrip. The highest bid won. The jobs permitted students to collect scrip from other students for services rendered. However, any student tutor could auction positions in his or her classes. Besides tutoring, students could use script to buy food, school supplies, books, and childish luxuries in a school store. The adult supervisors were paid from the bids on jobs.

With fully-developed internal economies, Lancaster schools provided a grammar-school education for a cost per student near $40 per year in 1999 U.S. dollars. The students were very clever at reducing their costs, and once invented, improvements were widely adopted in a school. For example, Lancaster students, motivated to save scrip, ultimately rented individual pages of textbooks from the school library, and read them in groups around music stands to reduce textbook costs. Exchanges of tutoring, and using receipts from "down tutoring" to pay for "up tutoring" were commonplace.

Established educational elites found Lancaster schools so threatening that most English-speaking countries developed mandatory publicly-paid education explicitly to keep public education in "responsible" hands. These elites said that Lancaster schools might become dishonest, provide poor education and were not accountable to established authorities. Lancaster's supporters responded that any schoolchild could avoid cheats, given the opportunity, and that the government was not paying for the educations, and thus deserved no say in their composition.

Lancaster, though motivated by charity, claimed in his pamphlets to be surprised to find that he lived well on the income of his school, even while the low costs made it available to the poorest street-children. Ironically, Lancaster lived on the charity of friends in his later life.

Progressive reforms in Europe and America

The term "progressive" in education has been used somewhat indiscriminately; there are a number of kinds of educational progressive, most of the historically significant kinds peaking in the period between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called the father of the child-study movement. It has been said that Rousseau "discovered" the child (as an object of study).

Rousseau's principle work on education is Emile, in which he lays out an educational program for a hypothetical newborn's education to adulthood. Rousseau provided a dual critique of both the vision of education set forth in Plato's Republic and also of the society of his contemporary Europe and the educational methods he regarded as contributing to it; he held that a person can either be a man or a citizen, and that while Plato's plan could have brought the latter at the expense of the former, contemporary education failed at both tasks. He advocated a radical withdrawal of the child from society and an educational process that utilized the natural potential of the child and its curiosity, teaching it by confronting it with simulated real-life obstacles and conditioning it by experience rather than teaching it intellectually. His ideas were rarely implemented directly, but were influential on later thinkers, particularly Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, the inventor of the kindergarten.

Transcendentalist education

H. D. Thoreau's "Walden" and reform essays in the mid-19th century were influential also (see the anthology "Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education," Boston, 1999). For a look at Transcendentalist life, read Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." Her father, Bronson Alcott, a close friend of Thoreau's, pioneered progressive education for young people as early as the 1830s. (See Laurie James, "Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America's One-Room Schools," New York, 1994.)

The transcendental education movement failed, because only the most gifted students ever equaled the skills of their classically-educated teachers. These students would, of course, succeed in any educational regime. Accounts seem to indicate that the students were happy, but often pursued classical education later in life.

Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor educated in Rome, best realized the ideals of the transcendental movement. She tried to provide for the needs of children at each stage of their development, by carefully observing and meeting the needs of the actual children. In another view, she provided rewarding activities to lure children to practice skills on their own, as soon as they were able. Her books include "The Montessori Method" (1912) and "The Advanced Montessori Method" (1917). Unlike many successful educators, M. Montessori successfully taught others to emulate her methods, which are now widely available.


John Dewey, a philosopher and educator, was heavily influential in American and international education, especially during the first four decades of the twentieth century. An important member of the American Pragmatist movement, he carried the subordination of knowledge to action into the educational world by arguing for experiential education that would enable children to learn theory and practice simultaneously; a well-known example is the practice of teaching elementary physics and biology to students while preparing a meal. He was a harsh critic of "dead" knowledge disconnected from practical human life, foreshadowing Paulo Freire's attack on the "banking concept of education."

Dewey criticized the rigidity and volume of humanistic education, and the emotional idealizations of education based on the child-study movement that had been inspired by Rousseau and those who followed him. He presented his educational theories as a synthesis of the two views. His slogan was that schools should encourage children to "Learn by doing." He wanted people to realize that children are naturally active and curious. Dewey's understanding of logic is best presented in his "Logic, the Theory of Inquiry" (1938). His educational theories were presented in "My Pedagogic Creed," "The School and Society," "The Child and Curriculum," and "Democracy and Education" (1916).

The question of the history of Deweyan educational practice is a difficult one. He was an extremely popular and popularized thinker, but his views and suggestions were often misunderstood by those who sought to apply them, leading some historians to suggest that there was never an actual implementation on any considerable scale of Deweyan progressive education. The schools with which Dewey himself was most closely associated (though the most famous, the "Laboratory School", was really run by his wife) had considerable ups and downs, and Dewey left the University of Chicago in 1904 over issues relating to the Dewey School.

Dewey's influence began to decline in the time after the Second World War and particularly in the Cold War era, as more conservative educational policies came to the fore.

The Administrative Progressives

The form of educational progressivism which was most successful in having its policies implemented has been dubbed "administrative progressivism" by historians. This began to be implemented in the early 20th century. While influenced particularly in its rhetoric by Dewey and even more by his popularizers, administrative progressivism was in its practice much more influenced by the industrial revolution and the concept economies of scale.

The administrative progressives are responsible for many features of modern American education, especially American high schools: counseling programs, the move from many small local high schools to large centralized high schools, curricular differentiation in the form of electives and tracking, curricular, professional, and other forms of standardization, and an increase in state and federal regulation and bureaucracy, with a corresponding reduction of local control at the school board level. (Cf. "State, federal, and local control of education in the United States", below) (Tyack and Cuban, pp. 17-26)

These reforms have since become heavily entrenched, and many today who identify themselves as progressives are opposed to many of them, while conservative education reform during the Cold War embraced them as a framework for strengthening traditional curriculum and standards.

Critiques of progressive and classical reforms

Many progressive reforms failed to transfer learned skills. Evidence suggests that higher-order thinking skills are unused by many people (cf. Jean Piaget, Isabel Myers, and Katherine Briggs). Some authorities say that this refutes key assumptions of progressive thinkers such as Dewey.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who studied people's developmental stages. He showed by widely reproduced experiments that most young children do not analyze or synthesize as Dewey expected. Some authorities therefore say that Dewey's reforms do not apply to the primary education of young children.

Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers developed a psychological test that reproducibly identifies sixteen distinct human temperaments, building on work by Jung. A wide class of temperaments ("Sensors", half by category, 60% of the general population) prefer not to use non-concrete information such as theories or logical inference.

In terms of education, some authorities interpret this to mean that 60% of the general population only use, and therefore would prefer to learn answers to concrete "Who, what, when, where," and "how" questions, rather than answers to the theoretical "which" and "why" questions advocated by progressives.

This information was confirmed (on another research track) by Jean Piaget, who discovered that nearly 60% of adults never habitually use what he called "formal operational reasoning," a term for the development and use of theories and explicit logic.

If this criticism is true, then schools that teach only principles would fail to educate 60% of the general population.

The data from Piaget, Myers and Briggs can also be used to criticize classical teaching styles that never teach theory or principle. In particular, a wide class of temperaments ("Intuitives", half by category, 40% of the general population) prefer to reason from trusted first principles, and then apply that theory to predict concrete facts.

In terms of education, some authorities interpret this to mean that 40% of the general population prefer to use, and therefore want to learn, answers to theoretical "Which and "Why" questions, rather than answers to the concrete "Who, what, when, where" and "How" questions.

The synthesis resulting from this two-part critique is a "neoclassical" learning theory similar to that practiced by Marva Collins, in which both learning styles are accommodated. The classroom is filled with facts, that are organized with theories, providing a rich environment to feed childrens' natural preferences. To reduce the limitations of depending only on natural preferences, all children are required to learn both important facts, and important forms of reasoning.

Reforms of the Civil Rights era in the United States

From the 1950's to the 1970's, many of the proposed and implemented reforms in US education stemmed from the Civil Rights movement and related trends; examples include racial integration and busing, affirmative action, and banning of school prayer. (Tack and Cuban, p. 29)

Reforms in the 1980's

In the 1980's, some of the momentum of education reform moved from the left to the right, with the release of A Nation at Risk , Ronald Reagan's efforts to reduce or eliminate the United States Department of Education. In the latter half of the decade, E.D. Hirsch put forth an influential attack on one or more versions of progressive education, advocating an emphasis on "cultural literacy"--the facts, phrases, and texts that Hirsch asserted every American had once known and that now only some knew, but was still essential for decoding basic texts and maintaining communication. Hirsch's ideas remain significant through the 1990s and into the 21st century, and are incorporated into classroom practice through textbooks and curricula published under his own imprint.

State, federal, and local control of education in the United States

In the United States, schools are regulated by a variety of laws and regulations at the district, county, state, and federal levels. The bulk of day-to-day activities of schools have typically been influenced more by district-level government, constituted usually by a district bureaucracy led by a Superintendent and overseen by a locally elected and/or appointed school board. However the state and federal governments often mandate programs and reforms or prohibit certain activities, either by criminalizing them through legislation or court precedent, or by restricting state and federal funds to school who are in compliance. The most famous conflict between levels of government in the US education system followed from the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Beginning at the turn of the century, the administrative progressives dramatically increased the role of state and federal control and decreased the size and powers of local boards of education. Later, initiatives such as Lyndon Baines Johnson's "Great Society" and civil rights laws have made federal funding to local schools conditional on compliance with federal regulations. State laws vary substantially, but California, for example, has a constitutional requirement to spend 40% of the state budget on education. To receive this funding, California schools must meet mandatory curriculum standards, tested competencies, and comply with complex laws regarding vaccination records, earthquake safety, disabled-access and numerous other requirements.

In such a heavily-regulated, highly politicized climate, the freedom of local school boards or administrators to reform local schools is substantially reduced from the time that most U.S. public schools were first established (the 1850s in most states). Charles E. Finn , a researcher at the Hoover Institute, has performed studies showing that principals and district superintendents believe that their working environment is too politicized for them to effectively administer their schools. In particular, most said that they feel unable to reward outstanding staff, or discipline poorly performing staff. Many district superintendents and principals in this study complained particularly about the activities of school boards and teachers' unions.

One track of reform is that recent federal legislation, such as the "No Child Left Behind Act" (NCLB) of 2001 have notably reduced regulation. For example, the NCLB provides block grants to states, merely requiring that they be used for the lowest-performing schools, rather than replace state funds.

Broadly speaking, there is a tendency of the political left to embrace the influence of higher levels of government at the expense of local control, and of the political right to do the opposite; however there are many cases that break from this norm; the No Child Left Behind Act being a top-down federal reform instituted by Republican president George W. Bush and prompting local resistance by many non-conservatives.

Accountability reforms

Standardized testing

Standardized testing compares schools to keep their administrations accountable. Sometimes, as in the "No Child Left Behind Act" the results are used to locate and reform particular schools. A notable disadvantage is that many teachers and principals complain of "teaching to the test." That is, curriculum choices are being made in a covertly centralized way. Charles Finn's study showed that superintendents found this less of a problem than principals.

Accountability may also be an issue in other types of school reform; for example, a competitive model based on school choice and/or privatization may be seen as a way to hold schools accountable.

School choice

Libertarian theorists such as Milton Friedman advocate School choice to eliminate any need for formal accountability. Public educational vouchers would permit guardians to select and pay any school, public or private, with public funds. The theory is that childrens' guardians will shop for the best schools. For more information see School choice.

Charter schools

Charter schools also attempt to free administrators from regulations and local political entanglements to improve their administration. The Center for Educational Reform says that charter schools with "weak laws" have more problems, because more established legal requirements for public schools are applied to them.

Alternatives to public education

Home education is favored by some parents who directly take responsibility for their children's education, eliminating accountability by public officials. For more information, see home education.

Notable reforms

See also educational philosophies.

Education reform in specific nations

Educational reform in Taiwan

In other parts of the world, educational reform has had a number of different meanings. In Taiwan in the 1990s and 2000s a movement tried to prioritize reasoning over mere facts, reduce the emphasis on central control and standardized testing. There was consensus on the problems. Efforts were limited because there was little consensus on the goals of educational reforms, and therefore on how to fix the problems. By 2003, the push for education reform had declined.

External links

Two very important forces in progressive education are John Taylor Gatto and the National Coalition for Community Schools.


  • Kliebard, Herbert. The Struggle for the American Curriculum. New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987
  • Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: a century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995

Last updated: 08-29-2005 12:53:18
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