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Education reform is a plan or movement which attempts to bring about a systematic change in educational theory or practice across a community or society. In the past, in the United States, public attention focuses on standards based education reform in response to the high expense and poor outcomes of primary and secondary schools relative to their counterparts in other countries. The U.S. however, has one of the best higher education systems in the world. Important contributing factors to this excellence seem to be that this system admits on tested merit, supported by a large base of paying students—affording it the best teachers and researchers, and has nearly perfect student choice—leading to poor institutions losing funding.


Classical times

Plato believed that children would never learn unless they wanted to learn. In The Republic, he said, "...compulsory learning never sticks in the mind." An important educational debate 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?"

Modern reforms

Education reforms in modern times arose first against neo-classical education, known in America 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.

Reforms of classical education

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Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.

Western classical education as taught from the 18th to the 19th century has weaknesses that inspired reformers.

Classical education is most concerned with answering the "who, what, when, where" and "how" questions that concern a majority of students. Unless carefully taught, group instruction naturally neglects the theoretical "why" and "which" questions that strongly concern a minority of students.

Young children with short attention spans often enjoy repetition, but only if the subject is changed every few minutes. Skilled, compassionate primary classical teachers have always changed subjects continually and rapidly. Unskilled, or unkind classical teachers have drilled the joy of learning right out of young heads.

Classical education in this period also deprecated local languages and cultures in favor of ancient languages (Greek and Latin) and their cultures. This produced odd social effects in which an intellectual class might be more loyal to ancient cultures and institutions than to their native vernacular languages and their actual governing authorities.

Educational economies 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 Roman 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 scrip 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 progressivism, most of the historically significant kinds peaking in the period between the late 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries.


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 principal work on education is Emile: Or, On Education, 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 Froebel, 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, A. Bronson Alcott, a close friend of Thoreau's, pioneered progressive education for young people as early as the 1830s.

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.

National identity

Education is often seen in Europe as an important system to maintain national, cultural and linguistic unity. Prussia instituted primary school reforms expressly to teach a unified version of the national language, "Hochdeutsch". One significant reform was kindergarten, whose purpose was to have the children spend time in supervised activities in the national language, when the children were young enough that they could easily learn new language skills.

Since most modern schools copy the Prussian models, children start school at an age when their language skills remain plastic, and they find it easy to learn the national language. This was an intentional design on the part of the Prussians.

In the U.S. over the last twenty years, more than 70% of non-English-speaking school-age immigrants have arrived in the U.S. before they were 6 years old. At this age, they could have been taught English in school, and achieved a proficiency indistinguishable from a native speaker. In other countries, such as the Soviet Union, France, Spain, and Germany this approach has dramatically improved reading and math test scores for linguistic minorities.


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 Bill Joel 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 Katharine Cook 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 children's 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 1950s to the 1970s, 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 1980s

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.

Reforms in the 1990s

Main article: Standards based education reform

Most states and districts in the 1990s adopted Outcomes Based Education in some form or another. The process usually was an umbrella for other disputed methods, such as constructivist mathematics and whole language. A state would create a committee to adopt standards, and a performance based assessment to assess "learning outcomes" which might look somewhat like a content based test, or something that parents might violently reject with very little recognizably academic content. A "Certificate of Initial Mastery" would replace the diploma.

At the start of the 1990s, "outcomes" tended to be nonacademic, but towards the 2000s, the term "high standards" instead was adopted, often resulting in very difficult tests. In the 2000s, many states are slated to require passing these tests to get a diploma, compared to the earlier tradition that any student who got a D average and attended for 4 years would graduate with one. States would spend millions to implement these reform programs. Other reform movements were School To Work, which would require all students to spend substantial class time on a job site. In one state, Washington, only half of students passed all sections of the WASL standards based assessment , even those these students will need to pass all sections by the time they graduate in two years to get a diploma. After over a decade after the state committed to its 1993 standards based education reform legislation, such massive failure has led the Washington Education Association teacher's union to call for dropping the requirement for a high school graduation examination, while no new states would adopt such requirements and some would drop them by 2006.


Education reform has been pursued for a variety of specific reasons, but generally most reforms aim at redressing some societal ills, such as poverty-, gender-, or class-based inequities, or perceived ineffectiveness. 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 20th century.

The "beliefs" of school districts are optimistic that quite literally "all students will succeed", which in the context of high school graduation exams, all students in all groups, regardess of heritage or income will pass tests that in the introduction typically fall beyond the ability of all but the top 20 to 30 percent of students. The claims clearly renounce historical research that shows that all ethnic and income groups score differently on all standardized tests and standards based assessments and that students will achieve on a bell curve. Instead, education officials across the world believe that by setting clear, achievable, higher standards, aligning the curriculum, and assessing outcomes, learning can be increased for all students, and more students can succeed than the 50 percent who are defined to be above or below grade level by norm referenced standards.

States have tried to use state schools to increase state power, especially to make better soldiers and workers. This strategy was first adopted to unify related linguistic groups in Europe, such as Germany and Italy. Exact mechanisms are unclear, but it often fails in areas where populations are culturally segregated, as when the U.S. Indian school service failed to suppress Lakota and Navaho, or when a culture has widely respected autonomous cultural institutions, as when the Spanish failed to suppress Catalan.

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 that the quality of democratic governance depends on the ability of citizens to make informed, intelligent choices, and that education can 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.

School choice

Libertarian theorists such as Milton Friedman advocate School choice to promote excellence in education through competition and to eliminate any need to otherwise attempt a workable method of accountability for results. Public educational vouchers would permit guardians to select and pay any school, public or private, with public funds currently allocated to local public schools. The theory is that children's guardians will naturally shop for the best schools, much as is already done at college level.

Alternatives to public education

Home education is favored by a growing number of parents who take direct responsibility for their children's education rather than enrolling them in local public schools seen as not meeting expectations.

Montessori Pre- and Primary school programs employ alternative theories of guided exploration which seek to embrace children's natural curiosity rather than, for instance, scolding them for falling out of rank.

Notable reforms

Some of the methods and reforms have gained permanent advocates, and are widely utilized.

Many educators now believe that anything that more precisely meets the needs of the child will work better. This was initiated by M. Montessori and is still utilized in Montessori schools.

The teaching method must be teachable! This is a lesson from both Montessori and Dewey. This view now has very wide currency, and is used to select much of the curricula of teachers' colleges.

Conservative programs are often based on classical education, which is seen by conservatives to reliably teach valuable skills in a developmentally appropriate order to the majority of Myers-Briggs temperaments, by teaching facts.

Programs that test individual learning, and teach to mastery of a subject have been proven by the state of Kentucky to be far more effective than group instruction with compromise schedules, or even class-size reduction (see reference to KERA, below)

Schools with limited resources, such as most public schools and most third-world and missionary schools, use a grammar-school approach. The evidence of Lancaster schools suggests using students as teachers. If the culture supports it, perhaps the economic discipline of the Lancaster school can reduce costs even further. However, much of the success of Lancaster's "school economy" was that the children were natives of an intensely mercantile culture.

In order to be effective, classroom instruction needs to change subjects at times near a typical student's attention span, which can be as frequently as every two minutes for young children. This is an important part of Marva Collins' method.

The Myers-Briggs temperaments fall into four broad categories, each sufficiently different to justify completely different educational theories. Many developmental psychologists say that it might be socially profitable to test for and target temperaments with special curricula.

Some of the Myers-Briggs temperaments are known to despise educational material that lacks theory. Therefore, effective curricula need to raise and answer "which" and "why" questions, to teach students with "intuitive" (Myers-Briggs) modalities.

Philosophers identify independent, logical reasoning as a precondition to most western science, engineering, economic and political theory. Therefore, every educational program that desires to improve students' outcomes in political, health and economic behavior should include a Socratically-taught set of classes to teach logic and critical thinking.

Substantial resources and time can be saved by permitting students to test out of classes. This also increases motivation, directs individual study, and reduces boredom and disciplinary problems.

To support inexpensive continuing adult education a community needs a free public library. It can start modestly as shelves in an attended shop or government building, with donated books. Attendants are essential to protect the books from vandalism. Adult education repays itself many times over by providing direct opportunity to adults. Free libraries are also powerful resources for schools and businesses.

New programs based on modern learning theories should be quantitatively investigated for effectiveness, as was done by KERA (see reference, below).

A notable reform of the education system of Massachusetts occurred in 1993.

The current student voice effort echoes past school reform initiatives focusing on parent involvement, community involvement, and other forms of participation in schools. However, it is finding a significant amount of success in schools because of the inherent differences: student voice is central to the daily schooling experience because students spend all day there. Many educators today strive for meaningful student involvement in their classrooms, while school administrators, school board members, and elected officials each lurch to hear what students have to say.



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.

Further reading

"Marva Collins' Way" by Marva Collins See Laurie James, "Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America's One-Room Schools," New York, 1994.

Headline text

White Teachers, Multiracial Schools

Education and the Schools in The Black Community

African Americans and all minorities including the poor are getting the shaft when it comes to public education. One of the reasons that this is happening is due to funding allocation. The public education system in America is maintained by the ruling class. They decide where the money goes. For example if you live in a improvised urban area where tax levies are impassable, then most likely the schools are failing, but if you live in a rural area that is flourishing economically the tax payers are more opt to support levees and support the public schools. This is a terrible paradox that will continue until our public education system changes the way funding is allocated within the states. Our public education system needs a funding system that promotes equality. Every school should have access to the same educational materials and recourses.

No Child Left Behind is another problem that faces our public education system. With this act schools are required to have students pass federal assessment tests. If a certain number of the students do not pass then the schools lose their federal funding. This sounds like it is plausible, but it is not. Our teachers are now forced to teach to the test. This practice goes against all new teaching theories. Our students are faced with the pressure of learning what the government thinks is plausible, but in actuality they are not learning they are being drilled with loads of material and forced into a memorization game.

The third problem in our public education system is that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Most of the educators in our public schools are white, and they do not understand or see the importance of cultural habits and traditions involved with their non white students. It is noted in the book Evaluating Writing that the, “The English speaking populations, are unprepared to work with large numbers of very different students… (249.) Embracing culture and differences needs to become a central theme in our public schools.

"We Can't Teach What We Don't Know" Gary Howard "Evaluating Writing: The Role of Teachers' Knowledge about Text, Learning and Culture Charles Cooper and Lee Odell


  • 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

See also

External links

ru:Реформа образования в России
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