Public education in the U. S. is best viewed as a work in progress. The public school system has been in a state of reform for much of its existence, roughly since the inception of the common school near the middle of the 1800s. Despite high levels of consternation and frustration that emerge from a system that seems to be in a constant and even cyclical state of change, major reforms implemented throughout the history of public education continue to influence school structures, policies, and practices in the U.S. today.
Education reform is effected by and responsive to social, cultural, and economic change, as well the need to improve perceived shortcomings in the system. The need for reform should not necessarily be an indictment of the system as whole—in fact education innovation can be viewed as beneficial. Thus, the notion of sustainable school reform may be too static for a nation that intends to be a major leader in all areas, including the level of education its citizens are able to achieve.
However, the system does suffer from discernible levels of inertia, which have led to ongoing criticisms that it is unable to provide all children with learning conditions where they are able to achieve to the best of their ability. Public education has historically been too inflexible to effectively handle the educational needs of some children, particularly those designated to the margins because of their socioeconomic status, language, and/or ethnicity.
Many children unable to assimilate to dominate culture norms were not able to take advantage of opportunities to be educated through the public system. In the most powerful country in the world, the education of all children living within its boundaries should be a constant, even as educational reforms are implemented to address social, cultural or economic changes.
Episodes of education reform emanate from various sources. Reports—both commissioned and those written by education and/or social theorist have served as catalysts for varying degrees of change in the system of U.S. education. For example, changes were made to secondary education in response to the 1893 Committee of Ten report and the Seven Cardinal Principles of Education report in 1918. While one could correctly observe that these reports had different goals for secondary education, close inspection of secondary education today reveals elements of both.
James Coleman’s notion of equal educational opportunity, first proposed forty-plus years ago as part of a government commissioned report, continues to be the basis for discussions of the impact of race and socioeconomic status on the quality of education experienced by children. And, the educational reform document of 1983, A Nation at Risk, had a profound and continuing impact on multiple aspects of education. Much of the conversation around standards-based education, accountability, and teacher quality for example, was in response to that report.
The federal government has also influenced education change through legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which has gone through several reauthorizations. Despite the popular perception of the unpopularity of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the current reauthorization of ESEA, there are mixed views among the public regarding the efficacy of the law. Teachers have been particularly critical of the legislation. Still, when asked to comment on the law in total, teachers find some aspects of the law deplorable, but embrace other aspects.
Sustainable school reform — in the form of policies and practices for all schools for all times — should not be the goal for education. That we find ourselves in reform mode in the 21st century should be viewed as positive situation. We should work toward creating sustainable pathways that allow for continuous efforts to create improved educational environments for all children so that they are able have choices as adults, given the circumstances of the social and historical moments in which they find themselves.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three books; It’s Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield December, 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge February 26, 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). Please visit his website at www.drmattlynch.com for more information.