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A Tale of Two Education Reformers

Jonah Edelman

Steve Barr

It was Horace Mann and his lesser known comrades in the 1830s that launched the United States into the mode of top-down education “reform” initiatives by the meritocratic and entrepreneurial elite. The legacy today is perhaps our continuing and stubbornly OSFA (one size fits all) public school system. Frederick Taylor carried that torch in the late 19th Century applying his “Scientific Management” principles to public schools. His legacy is timed classes, bells and forms in triplicate. John Dewey continued the “reform” tradition in the early 20th Century with his “Democracy and Education” and focus on civics and social studies. And in the 1990s Rod Paige brought the country his “Houston Miracle”, and its legacy, No Child Left Behind and high-stakes standardized testing.

Certainly no consistent political agenda among the four… or is there? Mann and Dewey would be considered political progressives in their day, and Taylor and Paige conservatives. But they all believed in the top-down, rather than bottom-up approach to educational governance. That is, education was a compelling state interest and therefor the state should call the shots and stage-manage every child’s education.

Today there is no shortage of members of the meritocratic elite who try to make their mark and write their legacy as education “reformers”. Bill Gates comes to mind as the exemplar, along with numerous other individuals and foundations that plow millions of dollars into studies and programs to attempt to rethink, reinvent, and revitalize our public schools. But nearly always from that top-down perspective, looking for some “best practice” that can be turned into a single grand new scheme for educational transformation. Continue reading →