The need to couch the standard’s debate within historical context and develop a Marxist analysis of the role of capitalism and schooling is essential.  Too much time has been expended fighting standards for almost one century.  It is time to understand that capitalism has no interest in education of its population.  For its administrators and executives education is essential, for they will spull the levers of the new techno-surveillance society that is barreling towards neo-feudalism.  However, for working people, immigrants, people of color and those not represented in the corridors of power, the standard’s debate is an old one, usually not historically understood.

It is time to seat the conversation regarding standards within a materialist context and see it for what it is: an attack on education, not reform.  Reform means leaving structures or instituions relatively the same, but with a tweaking or slight change at the margins.  This is not the agenda of Gates, Walton, the Lumina Foundation or any of the other anti-teacher, anti-student ‘revolutionary’ measures aimed at stripping education from the American landscape.  Their attack on public education is not a reform, it is a reactionary revolution at a particular time in history when capitalism is in crisis and the education industry on the rise.  And it is a phenomenon happening all over the world.

Without an understanding of history we are fated to repeat it, as Marx said; the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy.

The following was writtens back in the late 90’s:




Any understanding of the politics of the current standards debate, its recent emergence, challenges, and promises must be understood within the socio-historical context that spawned it.  Historically, we can find a critical rethinking and reexamination of intelligence and educational standards in a multitude of educational and psychological theoretical pursuits throughout the 20th century.  These include the social functionalism of the factory school, Dewey progressivism of the early 1900’s, critical pedagogy, notably in the persona of Paolo Freire, neo-functionalism, critical thinking insights, post-structural psychoanalysis, and Vygotskian understandings of cognition and theories.


Yet unfortunately, as educational author and reformer, Herbert Kliebard, has lamented, school change movements generally fail to understand the history of educational reform in the United States.  According to Kliebard:


“New breakthroughs are solemnly proclaimed when in fact they represent minor modifications of early proposals, and, conversely, anachronistic dogmas and doctrines maintain a currency and uncritical acceptance far beyond their present merit.”[1]


Kliebard calls upon educators to examine new and popular school reform proposals from an historical perspective.  For our purposes, this examination will specifically focus on the historical development of education as these developments affect the debate regarding educational standards.


There are many points of view regarding the role or purpose of schools in society, what they should teach and how this teaching and learning should be assessed.  The aspiration of this article is not to give a prolonged or detailed characterization of the myriad frames of reference on the subject.  However, characterizing at least some of these points of view in terms of how the debate is currently viewed is essential to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue about assessment and standards.  Currently, popular political debates regarding literacy, standards, and assessment continue to concentrate on anecdotal evidence and attention seeking headlines that really do little or nothing to help teachers, their students or their students’ parents move towards a genuine curriculum of thinking and learning.  Furthermore, many parents and community members continue to labor under old paradigms of what it means to be literate, intelligent and assessed.  These paradigms are fueled and nurtured by an ignorant and demagogic media that continues to separate assessment from learning while seeking to frame the complex issue of education in either back-to-basics or outcome-based education—public schools or private schools.







The end of the civil war and the immediate years that followed brought unbridled economic growth and development to post-civil war America.  New scientific and technological developments fueled the expansion of markets and configured a deeply changing America.  More and more Americans began to find residence in large urban centers leading to the increased development and expansion of cities.  Coupled with immigration, the increased urbanization and industrialization of the late 19th century and early 20th century lent rapid growth to American industry and a new concentration of economic power in the hands of emerging industrialists and corporations.

With immigration changing the political and cultural landscape of America in the late 1800’s, larger urban centers were not only growing, but for the first time they were growing with people other than white Anglos (Kincheloe, 151)[2].  Along with this rapid growth came the need to assimilate these newly arriving immigrants into the melting pot of  “mainstream” American life.  An obvious and logical forum for this to occur in was the public school.  Work in urban centers during this time in history was largely relegated to factory work, so the emergence of the American public school began to resemble the factory as well.  There were bells to sound the beginning of classes, desks bolted to the floor in regimented rows, strict discipline, and a rigidly imposed social order (ibid.).[3]


The costs of building these new factory type schools were justified in the minds of the public by appeals to the “national interest”.  The argument was simple.  Immigrant children were in the United States because the United States needed the labor of their parents to become rich and prosperous.  The market rational at the time also argued that by educating these “immigrant children” there would be a positive return on investment, i.e. a more productive work force and a more competitive America.  One leading educational functionalist at the time, Ellwood Cubberley, wrote:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) [his parentheses] are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the demands of life.  The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.[4]

If the public school represented the factory, the students themselves were little more than the raw material or objects of production; they were seen as the products to be fashioned by the public school system.  Here, in the emerging modern public schools of America, children, especially immigrant children, were to be trained to follow directions and routines, learn proper English, and develop rudimentary “basic skills”, such as reading, mathematical, and writing skills.  Schooling, in a sense, developed as a center for socialization and indoctrination as America entered the industrial age.


Post-Civil War America also saw market interests and business concerns rapidly permeate public schools.  Not only was the curriculum of public schools immersed in the growth, regulation, and maintenance of urbanization and the rise of industrialization and factory existence, but they were also implicated in the development of a modernist conception of knowledge and intelligence.


Between 1880 and 1920, as the factory style public school system emerged, so too did the philosophy that specified that the reality and life of both students and teachers, needed to be scientifically oriented and regulated (Kincheloe, 153).[5]  Standardized tests arose during this period and placed their emphasis on sorting and categorizing mechanisms that would place students on specific curricular tracks.  Modern rationalism and specific, delineated ways of knowing emerged as the measure of intelligence and the project for new standardized tests, such as the Stanford-Benet test, were designed to calibrate and classify students based on emerging modernist notions of intellectual behavior.  These instruments of assessment also gave specific direction to teachers as to what they should be doing in their classrooms.


In the case of the IQ test, it had its origins in 1904 France where Alfred Binet attempted to study and recommend procedures for educating mentally retarded children (Binet, 1905).  The test itself was forged in the fires of actual and existent material conditions found in early 20th century capitalist France and reflected the values, interests, needs and focuses of not only Binet himself, but the cultural and socio-economic milieu within which he found himself.


Binet proposed, in 1905, a thirty-item scale of intelligence, a set of norms so to speak, to measure what contributes to classroom achievement.  After Binet’s death in 1911, the Stanford-Binet IQ test revised Binet’s earlier normative scale. The test has been revised many times since its inception and is still generally considered the measure of intelligence in Western societies (Binet, ibid.).


Formalist reason, Cartesian-Newtonian science, techno-rationalist necessities of the emerging industrial revolution coupled with the need to develop a psychology or managerial science of the mind, must all be understood to have influenced and contributed to the theoretical development and practical implementation of the normative scales found in the IQ test.  Considerations of historical reality would be necessary to understand any assessment, not simply the IQ test; their development, use and analysis is always historically situated and must be understood against the specific socio-economic conditions from which they arose.  This allows us to see why and how intelligence was defined and how this definition has implications as to how we organize educational occasions for students and productive opportunities for teachers.


The burgeoning industrial capitalism of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s needed schooling to preserve, extend, and legitimize economic relations of production and the arrival of new forms of unprecedented consumption.  Consequently, during this period we see the rise and development of an educational philosophy called social functionalism; education organized, implemented, and controlled to meet the functional needs of societies business and economic interests.  These needs could be identified with what was necessary in the workplace and then taught and assessed.  The assessment would be metaphorically similar to assuring quality control, much like quality control assurance of products.


Directly associated with the social functionalism of schools was the excessive preoccupation with the values of productivity, efficiency, and thrift.[6]  With the development of the assembly line, and specifically the contributions of Frederick Taylor to the new science of business management that was being realized on assembly lines, efficiency, productivity, and speed began to capture the imagination of the American public.  Factory work relied on workers who could follow instructions, take simple directions, and work swiftly to increase production with maximum efficiency.

Industrial production proceeded at levels heretofore unheard of and the power and ideology of industrialized production became the infatuation and ideology of America during this period.  It is hard not to see the parallel between this historical time period and today.  Although contemporary production has shifted to technological and service work as America enters into the “third wave” or post-industrialism, infatuation with technological tycoons and the ideology of efficiency and “lean production” now dominates American culture.  School-to-work programs are important aspects of many public schools and charter schools have arisen, partly, in response to the demands of the new social functionalism and prepare students for the needs of production in the 21st century.


The social functionalism prevalent in the philosophy of early 20th century educational discourse along with a preoccupation for speed and efficiency was described by then leading reformer Franklin Bobbitt, one of the key social functionalists for the industrial-age school restructuring movement.  Bobbitt claimed as early as 1924:


“It is helpful to begin with the simple assumption to be accepted literally, that education is to prepare men and women for the activities of adult life; and that nothing should be included which does not serve this purpose…. The first task is to discover the activities which ought to make up the lives of men and women; and along with these, the abilities and personal qualities necessary for proper performance.  These are educational objectives.  When we know what men and women ought to do then we shall have before us the things for which they should be trained.”[7]


The activities to which Bobbitt refers were tied to necessities owed to changes in the relations of production and consumption that were exploding at the time.


And not only did the industrial age have an impact on the purposes and goals of education, but the social functionalism of the time also affected staffing patterns, curricular construction, and instructional design.[8]  What Callahan referred to as the “cult” of efficiency and productivity had an effect on every aspect of schooling.[9]


Taylorism, (taken from Frederick Taylor the father of the assembly line) was the modern science of business management and was rapidly being implemented in school production as well as in the industrial development it mirrored.  With educational goals restructured and defined as increasing productivity in schools, in essence the quantity of what student’s learn, the factory school began to predetermine outcomes and then plan backwards to restructure education so that these outcomes could be reached.  Bobbitt declared as early as 1913:


“The third grade teacher should bring her pupils up to an average of 26 correct (addition) combinations per minute.  The fourth grade teacher has the task, during the year that the same pupils are under her care, of increasing their addition speed from an average of 26 combinations per minute to an average of 34 combinations per minute.  If she does not bring them up to the standard 34, she has failed to perform her duty in proportion to the deficit; and there is no responsibility beyond the standard.”[10]


Specifically stated learning objectives that could be measured, controlled, and regulated became the language of educational discourse.  These objectives were tied to what was needed or what was functional within the new industrial society that was emerging.  With an “objectives first” approach to education and schooling, curriculum underwent unique changes.  Educators at the time were not only concerned with efficiency and production, but they also believed strongly in the practice of differentiated staffing.[11]   Knowledge acquisition was fragmented into disciplines and subjects, much like the work on assembly lines in industrial factories.  The important goal for the social functionalists and efficiency educators of their day was to reduce the number of educational workers by maximizing their instructional efficiency.  Thus, not much different than what Taylor advocated in the factory, no one person was to ever be responsible for having too many different tasks.  Scientism and the instrumentalist approaches of functionalist educators divided teaching up into distinct and differentiated tasks staffed by distinctive individuals.


The reconfiguration of the school day and the redesign of curriculum during the industrial revolution in the early part of the 20th century helped shape what we know now as the large, urban public school and its accompanying public school curriculum.  As we shall see, Bobbitt’s appeal to link school to work was not much different than positions taken by certain educational policy makers and business leaders today.  And in the same way that Taylorism and the new science of business administration influenced the conception and organization of schooling during the early 20th century, contemporary changes in production, consumption, and business management theory continue to exert a tremendous influence on the standards debate today.



Economic Conservatives and the Neo-Functionalist Argument


“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people….  We have, in effect been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”


—- A Nation at Risk

The prevailing point of view at this juncture in history, one that is embraced by both economic and neo-functionalist assertions and resonates throughout the media, seems to be that school is merely a training ground for the necessities of market civilization—i.e., preparation in school is preparation for work.   Now, with dramatic changes in the nature and relations of the forces of post-modern capitalist production, contemporary post-functionalists have refashioned and rely on neo-formalistic, cognitive notions of intelligence that though formal in nature, seek to expand the parameters of formal psychological theories to include such things as critical thinking skills, problem solving, and decision-making capabilities.


Part of the problem according to neo-functionalists, are what they refer to as failing government schools.  They go on to argue that the cybernetic economy of information and knowledge will necessitate the cultivation and harvesting of the best decision making and problem solving capacities among capitalist workers and mangers.  They talk about managers and workers as knowledge workers who are able to use new technology and they advocate that students be educated to fashion large amounts of information and data into patterns from which they might make plausible inferences about business issues.  They see problem solving and decision making skills, within the context of post-capitalist society—and its political, social and economic arrangements—as the new hemisphere of intelligence.  Adaptation to change, continuous lifelong learning, thinking outside of the box, flexibility, proactive thinking, open-minded thinking intuitive thinking and a host of other business and managerial psycho-babble is marshaled to point to the “new intelligence” needs of the post-modern capitalist global order (American Management Association).


* all quotes not specifically referenced are from Peter’s Quotations


Fundamentally, this means that students go to school for the purpose of learning how to compete in a capitalist global society where they are taught job skills they are told are essential to get ahead.  The National Skill Standards Board, containing appointees by President Bill Clinton, adopts this position in their discussion of standards:


“The National Skill Standards Board is building a voluntary national system of skill standards, assessment and certification that will enhance the ability of the United States to compete effectively in the global economy.”


From this point of view, education, beginning in primary school, should be designed to create producers and consumers who accept and adapt to the business models inherent in capitalist society as well as the power relations that govern them.  The new political discourse of conservative neo-functionalism discusses education only as it relates to markets, national identity, global competition, increased productivity and unbridled consumption.  Nothing is said about helping students relate to the world in critical ways.  For economic conservatives, schools serve national and market forces—not people.


Even for those CEO’s and neo-functionalists that bemoan the current state of education as an antiquated testimony to the past and talk about the need for critical thinking, their goal is also clearly tied to the bandwagon of individual economic necessity. Former CEO of Apple Corporation, John Sculley, at Bill Clinton’s 1992 Economic Conference stated this quite succinctly:


“We are still trapped in a K-12 public education system, which is preparing our youth for jobs that no longer exist.  A highly skilled work force must begin with a world class public education system which will turn out a world class product.  …It is an issue about an educational system aligned with the new economy and a broad educational opportunity for everyone.  Our public education system has not successfully made the shift from teaching the memorization of facts to achieving learning of critical thinking skills. …It’s America’s choice: High skills or low wages” (Sculley,1992).


According to the new gospel of neo-functionalism, there is a need not only for a different kind of production under Post-Fordism, but for a different kind of worker—the knowledge worker.  This is the worker who is adaptable and amenable to multi-task work environments; who has a theoretical understanding of systems and how they function; who can work in teams; who can accept new managerial authority.  The worker who can form data into patterns and then interpret this data for the good of company profits; workers who can operate within wider frames of reference, who seek out new information from multiple sources and who can solve business problems and make business decisions.  For neo-functionalists and their economic conservative counterparts, the new millennium is foisting upon us new market-driven-cognitive demands, different productive relations, and schools must be ready to accept and meet this challenge if one wants to get ahead and if America is truly able to compete.


Former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, makes similar arguments in his book, The Work of Nations:


“We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century.  There will no longer be national economies at least as we have come to understand the concept.  All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise the nation.  Each nation’s primary asset will be its citizens’ skills and insights” (Reich, 1992).


For neo-functionalists like Reich and Sculley the rhetoric is clear: less desirable jobs will not exist in the US but will be shipped overseas to third world countries—the new assembly line of global capitalism.  More complex, intellectually challenging work, they argue, will become the norm in the United States and of course, there will be winners and losers.  However, this time the winners and losers will not only be within nations, but will actually be nations themselves.  The message the neo-liberal agenda promotes is very clear: global economic necessities demand an educational system tied to the skills and training necessary to compete in the new millennium of a cybernetic global capitalism.  Critical thinking is important only as it relates to creating critical mass—designing better products, boosting productivity, fashioning better customer service, creating stronger national identity and creating a new class of disciplined consumers—preparing citizen-consumers for this “new world order” becomes the raison d’être of education and educational sites.


From the economic conservative and neo-liberal perspective, educational assessment and world class standards must be linked to what it means to be successful in the new global economy.  Through their efforts they have created standard and assessment think-tanks, such as Achieve Incorporated, a non-profit creation by a group of CEO’s and the National Governors Association, that is currently co-chaired by IBM’s Chief Executive Officer, Louis Gerstner Jr. and Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, as well as the National Education Goals Report launched in 1989 as a result of the controversy over the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.  The Goals Report announces its mission as:


“By the year 2000, American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern society” (National Education Goals Report, 1991).


By adopting what they like to call “world class standards”, these corporate and business leaders are working to identify what Post-Fordist, neo-functionalist  skills will be necessary for the workplace of the future (Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory,1997).  The clamor to define world class standards and skills has been linked to America’s presumed continued dominance in the world economy and both economic conservatives and neo-liberal policy makers have tied the development of these standards to American market competitiveness.


Diane Ravitch, recognized as one of the darlings and chief architects of the modern standards movement, in the past stated the economic conservative and neo-liberal rationale for standards:


“Americans expect strict standards to govern the construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels; shoddy work would put lives at risk.  They expect stringent standards to protect their drinking water, the food they eat, and the air they breathe…Standards are created because they improve the activity of life” (Ravitch, 8-9).


For conservative standards advocates, like Ravitch, it seems that human educational standards can be equated with “quality control” in industry, assuring that the product conforms to industry standards (it must be noted that Ravitch has disclaimed the role of high stakes testing in schools).


What is ironic is how this neo-instrumentalism and post-functionalism has been redefined and refashioned to convey the appearance of progressive dialogue; a call to arms for change from the so-called new school reformers—the new corporate business and managerial elites.  Although the functionalist rationale has changed to that of neo-functionalism, what really has changed are the historical necessities of capitalism, not a rethinking regarding the role of schools. The contemporary reformers, the neo-functionalists, still advocate and cling to an educational theory and practice allied with the needs of commercial interests and organized along business organizational theories and practices.  The difference at this historical juncture is simply how they redefine the new functionalism and instrumentalism in face of post-modern capitalist changes in the relations and forces of production.


Another argument that we hear today among contemporary conservative educational reformers is the argument that schools must stick to the business of educating children in basic skills.  This is nothing new.  What is new, however, is how these basic skills are being redefined in face of the changes in the relations and forces of production in post-capitalist society. What was basic in Bobbitt’s time is not so basic today according to neo-functionalists.  Where these skills were once tied to an industrial society, they are now being recast in terms of the cybernetic-information society; the society we find ourselves in at the end of the 20th century.

And not only have basic skills been redefined and updated to meet the exigencies of post-modern capitalist development, we now find that terms such as critical thinking and Socratic questioning have been hijacked from progressive educational theory and practice and are now being taught as the type of intelligences businesses believe worker-managers will need in the 21st century  (Spitxer  ). (AMA).


Indeed, the whole notion of examining and reexamining cognition has now become a major preoccupation of managerial programs, business educational theories and actual educational training classes (AMA).  Michael Molenda (1992) captures this well when he states:


“Learning achievement is the crucial product of the educational system.  Schools obviously attempt to perform many functions in American society, including socialization of youth into the community.  However, the primary and unique requirement expected of schools is the attainment of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes specified by state and local boards of education….  It is what Reich (1991) and others insist is the vital element for economic survival.”  (p. 78)


Of course what the post-functionalists don’t tell us is that the development of systematic, collaborative, evaluative and abstract thinking, through schools modeled after effective and efficient business organizations (Reich, 1992), are really designed to develop a cognitive elite—a post-modern managerial class.  From their point of view the successful acquisition of capital and the smooth operation of technological control, authority and maintenance should be the object of education—thus the post-functionalism.  The rhetoric they choose to embrace is one of citizen inclusivity—a Jeffersonian, democratic education for all.  Yet as we can see by examining any number of their programs, their inclusivity is much like a private country club that admits its members in accordance to a rigid, privileged, class, gender and race based criteria (AMA).  It is affirmative action for the affirmed.




Although the factory style of education during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th imposed a functionalistic, industrial education on all American citizens — African American, Native, newly-arriving immigrants, and Anglos — it was not without its critics.


Even though the prevailing wisdom at the time argued for impersonal factory schools grounded on modernist approaches to curriculum and teaching, many educators protested.  They not only saw the factory school as an impersonal social arrangement, they saw industrial society and the factory itself as an impediment to human development.  Margaret Haley, union organizer and teacher-activist at the time, expressed the following observation:

Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today; one the industrial ideal, dominating through the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product, and the machine; the other ideal of democracy, the ideal of educators, which places humanity above all machines, and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life.[12]


Educators, like Haley, opposed what she viewed as the rigid and impersonal social order imposed by factory life.  She, like many of her contemporaries, felt that the rise of corporations and corporate power were far more menacing to American life than the role of government.[13]  These educational progressives wanted schooling to create educational experiences for children that expanded their involvement in citizenship activities and civic responsibility, and to this end they argued public education must construct its mission and purpose.


Besides DuBois and Haley, one of the most prominent progressive educators and philosophers during the early part of the twentieth century, was John Dewey.  Like Haley, Dewey argued against reducing schooling to mere functionalism — boring and repetitive tasks designed to prepare students for future work.  Dewey’s argument against social functionalism maintained that role and purpose behind should be to prepare students to live fully in the present, not simply in preparation for the future.  Like Boyd Bode, another progressive educator of the time, Dewey argued that for schooling to become merely a preparatory institution for future market needs was dehumanizing and denied children the opportunity to find relevancy and meaning in their lives.  Dewey commented:


“The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself.  It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future.  We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.  This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”[14]


Dewey himself was very clear regarding what he and other progressives conceived of as the purpose and objective of education:


“The problem of education in its relation to the direction of social change is all one with the problem of finding out what democracy means in total range of concrete applications; domestic, international, religious, cultural, economic, and political.  …The trouble… is that we have taken democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all.  We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew with every generation, in every year, in every day, in the living relations of person to person, in all social forms and institutions.  Forgetting this…. We have been negligent in creating a school that should be the constant nurse of democracy.”[15]


Dewey was convinced that democracy was not a “thing” that is found, but an idea that is perpetually created.  His notion of education rested upon a citizenry concerned with developing the ability to visualize the type of society they wished to live in.  Dewey and his progressive contemporaries continued to argue against social functionalism and for a different conception of schooling and educational purpose.  The looked to assessment to measure how students think, not what they think.


Although the debate between progressive educators like Dewey, Boyde, DuBois and Haley on the one hand, and Bobbit and Cumberley on the other, were intense and controversial, in the end it was functionalism that triumphed over progressivism.


There are many reasons for the triumph of social functionalism in the educational debates during early 20th century America, not the least being the cost of subsidizing and operating public education as an enterprise.  Progressive educational ideas would have required new structural configurations of school, an emphasis on quality education as opposed to educating quantities of students, new assessments, and more creative and innovative curricula.  Social functionalist approaches to education, on the other hand, were less expensive precisely because within the factory style school, students could be “produced” on an educational assembly line in much larger numbers than the craftsmanship required by progressive education.[16]  Similarly, with standardized tests, quality control could be rigidly fixed without variation.


Perhaps even more importantly, the progressive agenda for education was highly controversial and threatened the elite agenda of control and power that was taking shape in industrialized, modernist America.  With the emergence of union activism, socialist movements, the creation of the former Soviet Union in 1917, and the so-called Red scare and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of the 1920’s, the last thing that policy makers in either education, business, or politics wanted was an education for social liberation and individual realization.  Business interests, policy makers, and politicians were worried that opening up education to such things as personal awareness, democracy, social exploration, and critical analysis might compel the public to examine the social, cultural, and economic relations that governed their lives.  This had the propensity to pose a considerable threat to power, authority, and control and was of little interest to the captains of a market society undergoing a huge economic expansion, technological revolution, and rising industrialization.  Their notion of education for social function and control was far more pragmatic in an emerging industrial world where commercialism relied on disciplined workers and responsible consumers.  Socialization and indoctrination were to be the norm for schooling and tests and measurement instruments were developed to assist in assuring that this indoctrination and socialization became the subject of education.


As a result, Dewey’s progressive ideas had little support from administrators and other educational policy makers.  And so, although the debates between progressives and social functionalists reigned as educational discourse during the early part of the 20th century, schools were to be increasingly organized based on factory models and their curriculums wedded to organizational and intellectual endeavors that promoted education as preparation for work.  Many progressive educators and parents who find Dewey’s notion of educational purpose important have begun to open charter schools with instructional methodologies and curriculum based on progressive educational concerns.  For many of these educators, parents, students, and community stakeholders, the charter school reform effort has finally meant freedom from factory style education.  It has meant that they can now organize, orient, and construct their school vision based on progressive ideals.


The argument between Washington and DeBois and the educational functionalists and educational progressives, is as heated today as it was in the beginning of the 20th century; perhaps, even more so.  The issues that confronted educators in the early 20th century — curriculum construction, access to quality education, the education of minority children and newly arriving immigrants, race, gender equity, social class, market capitalism, technological innovation, work, efficiency and production, and the purpose and goals of education — represent similar but different challenges — much as they did close to one hundred years ago.  The idea of the charter school, or the notion of public school choice, has its roots in the controversies that Washington, DuBois, Haley, Dewey and their functionalist contemporaries, Bobbitt, Charters, and Cumberley, engaged in more than seventy-five years ago.  As we shall see in subsequent pages, these issues help explain the development and demands of charter schools among specific segments of the population.




     Public education in post-World War II America would experience some of its most dramatic challenges and changes.  In the context of the Cold War, McCarthyism, economic prosperity, suburban development, technological innovations in consumer goods, the advent of television and advertising, the growth of the Civil Rights movement, and the rapid development of scientific innovation and discovery arose controversial and rancorous debates over the role of education and universal access to school facilities.


Perhaps the most important event that marked post-World War II social, racial and educational politics was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education.  Up until this time, what was referred to as the separate-but-equal doctrine set forth as law in the famous Plessy vs. Ferguson case, governed relations between Blacks and Whites.  The Brown decision swept Plessy away forever, declaring the separate-but-equal doctrine “inherently unequal.”[17]  Further clarifying its position on the matter, the Court once again legally intervened in a follow-up decision by stating that public school systems that had been segregated up until that time now had to become desegregated.[18]


The court decision also brought up the issue of “states rights” versus federal control — an issue as old as the Civil War itself.  Many conservative southerners felt that decisions regarding local issues should be left to the states and local government bodies, not mandated by the federal government.  The Supreme Court decision in Brown was seen at the time by many conservatives as a federal invasion of state’s rights.


Another important post-World War II event that was to have a massive impact on the nation’s school systems and continued public debate over education was the advance of the Soviet Union into space, with the 1957 launching of the Sputnik.  Following the Soviet success, American leaders reacted with shock and disbelief, arguing that the Soviet Union now had a military advantage over the United State’s sovereignty.  Business leaders, military leaders, and educational policy makers scrambled to assign the blame to American public schools.  With the permissiveness of the 1950’s in everything from Rock and Roll music to new conventions regarding sexuality and conformity, blaming public education for not preparing the United States for global and economic competitiveness was convenient and attacks on public education intensified.[19]


With the launching of the Sputnik and the perceived Soviet superiority in matters of technology and military development, the federal government began to become more involved in the legal and economic realities of public education.  The National Defense and Education Act was set up and the educational emphasis was now focused primarily on science, mathematics, foreign language, guidance, career counseling, and vocational endeavors.  The federal government also appropriated and spent massive sums for the construction of schools and buildings.


Worried that the Soviet Union was achieving technological and military dominance over the United States, educational policy makers saw their role as the custodians of the public educational system.  Education was now to be perceived as a vehicle for gaining necessary skills for the promotion of the “national interest” and was directly linked to defeating communism at any costs.  For the first time in its history, the United States government declared education a national preoccupation and a national interest.  The public schools were still organized as large factories, but they were factories that were now more preoccupied with the regulation of the curriculum. In this atmosphere of political fear and educational purpose tied to military and technological preparedness, the former voices of progressive education were muted and silenced.


The efforts to promote an educational marketplace through privatized school choice traces directly to the work of conservative economist, Milton Friedman, in the 1950’s.  Unlike proponents of public education who sought restructuring and reform of factory style public schools, Friedman, in 1955, proposed that every family be given a federal “voucher” of equal worth, to be used for each child attending any school.  Under the proposed plan, the voucher would be comprised of public funds that would allow families to choose any school that met minimal governmental oversight.  Parents could also add their own resources to the value of the voucher, and schools would operate like businesses, setting their own tuition and admission requirements.[20]


Not only did Friedman’s proposal fail to attract public interest at the time, the prevailing ideology argued that a simple re-tooling of the curriculum and the addition of advanced placement classes would remedy whatever problems were associated with public education.  Further, with the Brown decision, any primacy of state rights over federal law in the form of state imposed desegregation was now illegal.  Although Friedman voiced his support for integration at the time, by asserting the primacy of freedom over equality, Friedman’s proposal would directly or indirectly further segregation.[21]  However, even though rejected by the public at the time, the Friedman proposal would return with a vengeance in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  The conservative proposal for educational reform would directly give rise to the development of privatization, public choice, and charter schools as educational reform movements and would become the biggest and most controversial issue in American politics at the beginning of the 21st century.


The importance of the post-World War II era in education is significant to any understanding of the current debates regarding public schools and specifically charter schools.  Issues regarding state’s rights, race, market initiatives, and “failing American schools”, so predominant in the educational discourse of the 1950’s, encompass some of the identical topics and questions that the educational community faces today.  The development of the charter school reform movement is a direct outgrowth of the issues that faced America as a nation in the 1950’s.






If post-World War II America experienced conformity in the 1950’s, the 1960’s were anything but conventional.  Changes in educational policy during the 1960’s and issues that comprised the debate over educational purpose and access must be situated and understood within a context of the political activism and resistance that comprised the decade.  Anti-war demonstrations, the civil rights movement, boycotts, the emergence of the gay movement in 1969, multiculturalism, feminism, assassinations of political leaders, and the multiple marches on Washington all worked directly to change the conception of America and American consciousness.  And the decade of the 1960’s was to have a dramatic and far reaching impact on educational issues and schooling as well.


Probably of the most important political events of the 1960’s was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Not only did passage of the act guarantee African Americans access to all public facilities, but it empowered the United States government to assure compliance with the act by bringing discrimination suits against any institution or local governmental body found to discriminate.  According to estimates, almost 99 percent of Black students in the eleven southern states remained in segregated schools.[22]  Schools that segregated were now to be stripped of any federal aid.


Another consequential legislative enactment in the 1960’s was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965.  Signed into law by then President Johnson as pat of the War on Poverty, the act would provide another nail in the coffin for segregated schools by bringing even more African Americans into the mainstream of public schooling.


With the fight over desegregation often a violent one, the Supreme Court once again was forced to act with its decision in Green vs. City School Board.[23]  The issue involved so-called “freedom of choice” plans that had been adopted by some southerners as a way of avoiding desegregation.  The Green decision outlawed these schemes as barriers to desegregation, further assuring that schools would be desegregated in accordance with the Brown decision.


The late 1950’s and the decade of the 1960’s saw an increasingly desegregated school system in America and immense changes in public education occurred during this time in the south.  For the first time, African Americans were allowed to attend public schools with Whites, albeit at times under protection of the National Guard.  Universal access to education was hatched from the struggle for equality and justice on behalf of African Americans, members of labor, students, feminists, and other groups.


The 1960’s also witnessed intense debates over school curriculum.  The roots of what is currently termed as the “multicultural” movement in education finds its origins in the radical challenges put forth by progressive educational forces in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The movement towards a multicultural curriculum originated largely from America’s culturally subjugated and marginalized, such as African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native-Americans, and women. Multicultural proponents criticized schooling for its practices of admission of people of color; they condemned the academic establishment for its subservience to business interests; they reprimanded schooling for its racist, sexist, and culturally biased curriculum; they chastised hiring practices for women and minorities; they exposed the pernicious practice of tracking; they lambasted the curriculum for its claim of neutrality; and they labored assiduously to assure beneficial entitlement programs such as bilingual education and Title VII mandated educational programs.


Multiculturalism argued that a lack of understanding and acceptance of racial differences was a recognized problem both for teachers and students alike.[24] From within the voices of the multicultural educational community there were calls to directly address issues of prejudice and discrimination within classroom curriculum.  Multicultural theorists posited that schools should not seek to melt away cultural differences within our pluralistic society, but instead should celebrate these differences in an atmosphere of educational inquiry.  Therefore, they pointed out, schools should be oriented toward the cultural enrichment of all students though programs aimed at the preservation and extension of cultural pluralism.  They put forth the idea that cultural diversity was a valuable resource that should be recognized, preserved, and extended, and they argued that only by directly confronting racism and prejudice could society assure an understanding and appreciation for human dignity.


The movements and educational struggles that took place during the 1960’s and early 1970’s produced a new language and vocabulary of educational critique.  Coupled with these critiques of schooling was a call for the abolition of inequality in school financing and for a commitment to federal funding for educational programs. The struggle for universal access, changes in the curriculum, and the passage of social legislation in the 1960’s profoundly changed American public education. These movements lent new currency to progressive calls for a democratic educational purpose that had started with Dewey.  Old progressive arguments and positions regarding the role and purposes of education that had been silenced by the Cold War of the 1950’s, began to re-emerge in the national debate.  American identity itself was under re-consideration as diversity and an understanding of difference became intense objects of controversy and debate.  This was to be especially true in universities that at the time were agitated sites of militancy and resistance.  During the controversial years of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the seeds that would eventually develop into the charter school reform movement were sown.




The 1970’s marked the first time that the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher’s union, endorsed a candidate for president of the United States.  President Jimmy Carter received the endorsement of the largest teacher’s union in his bid for presidency in 1976.  Carter owed this backing to his intent to establish a cabinet-level Department of Education.  The NEA had lobbied for such a national cabinet position since World War I.  Now, finally with the union endorsement, Carter raised education to the cabinet level in 1980.


While Jimmy Carter proved to be more conservative that many observers had expected from an “education president”, there is little doubt that Ronald Reagan, Carter’s successor, left a lasting conservative ideological stamp on American public education.

Considering the Department of Education an unnecessary expense and perceiving it as an imposition to state’s rights, Reagan sought to abolish the department directly after his 1980 election.  Invoking free market enterprise and the logic of market forces as the panacea to American social and economic troubles, Reagan and his administration embarked on restructuring social policy, including education, to reflect the primacy of market solutions to public problems.[25]


Calls for the abolishment of the Department of Education met with severe resistance.  This made it impossible for conservatives to abolish the department.  As a result, the Reagan administration sought to reconstitute the Department of Education, transforming it into a vocal spokesman for controversial policies like organized prayer, public and private school choice, Wall Street, vulture investors and school vouchers.  As a result, blistering attacks were leveled against public education, teacher’s unions, and curriculum.


It was in 1983 that the best-publicized educational achievement of the Reagan administration was issued in the form of a book-length report entitled, A Nation at Risk.  Issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), the report provided a scathing critique of the public education system, arguing that American education had become a bastion of mediocrity.  The report concluded that the state of American education was actually threatening the nation’s future economic growth.  With its dire predictions and warnings, a Nation at Risk once again focused public attention on the issue of education as an economic issue. As educational urgency took on market proportions, progressive educational concerns were not considered a priority.


After The Nation at Risk study released in 1983, scores of magazines and news reports jumped on the bandwagon, concentrating on the supposed “failure of public education”.  That year, Newsweek rushed a scathing story to press asking if the schools could be saved.  The sum of the report was that progress from generation to generation was being “shattered” by the mediocre condition of American schools.[26]

Responsibility for the recessionary economic crisis that plagued America during the early 1980’s was placed squarely on the back of the public educational system.  Public education was now looked at as an inhibitor to economic growth.[27]  Like the Sputnik scare decades prior, A Nation at Risk was used to sound a wake-up call to educators and policy makers.  This time, instead of Soviet superiority in outer space, it was the influx of quality goods from Japan that was to be considered the threat to national security.  America’s ability to compete globally, it was argued, was jeopardized by a public educational system that simply did not work.


To build the case for a mediocre school system, the NCEE turned to an analysis of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores to make its point.  The NCEE pointed to the long SAT score decline from 1963-1980.  They also began to publicly compare U.S. education to other Western school systems.  Playing off of a sense of political patriotism and economic nationalism, the Nation at Risk report pointed out that America would continue to be a preeminent country only so long as material benefits and great ideas remained part of the country’s legacy.  The report argued that the nation’s national security was in jeopardy as long as public schools threatened this legacy.


In June of 1983, another report entitled Action for Excellence: A Comprehensive Plan to Improve our Nation’s Schools, was published by the state Governor’s groups, called the Education Commission of the States (ECS).  Often referred to as the “Hunt Report” after Governor James B. Hunt of North Carolina, the report continued to echo the notion that American schools were failing.[28]


The alarms did not stop with the Hunt Report.  The next major statement regarding the state of public education was issued in September of 1983 with the Nation Science Board (NSB) report.  In its dramatic study on Educating Americans for the 21st Century, the NSB documents warned that:


“The nation that dramatically and boldly led the world into the age of technology is failing to provide its own children with the intellectual tools needed for the 21st century…. Already the quality of our manufactured products, the viability of our trade, our leadership in research and development, our standard of living, are strongly challenged.  Our children could be stragglers in a world of technology.  We must not let this happen; American must not become an industrial dinosaur.  We must not provide our children a 1960’s education for the 21st century world.”[29]


The exigencies of education were once again being linked to the nation’s economic readiness, or lack of it.  The 1980’s built the case for a super functionalism.  Instead of the rudimentary skills required by the social functionalism of industrialization, the new information and technological revolution in American society needed a different type of worker with different kinds of skills.  Preparing students for the 21st century technological and cybernetic revolution, or the “third wave”, became the mantra of reports similar to A Nation at Risk.  Calls to focus education on “back to basics” became the antidote for the economic crisis, similar to the “objectives first” clamor in the early 1900’s.  The National Science Board defined the new cognitive-economic relationship between school and work in the following way:


“Alarming numbers of young Americans are ill-equipped to work in, to contribute to, profit from and enjoy our increasingly technological society.  Far too many emerge from the nation’s elementary and secondary schools with an inadequate grounding in mathematics, science, and technology.  This situation must not continue…. We must return to the basics, but the “basics” of the 21st century are not only reading, writing, and arithmetic.  They include communication, and higher problem-solving skills, and scientific and technological literacy.”[30]


The super functionalism and new basics were now defined as “ultra basics” — such as science, computers, higher-order reasoning, social studies, foreign language, and academic English.  Schools were now to place these basics at the core of their curriculum.  While the “second wave” of educational restructuring was established for the industrial age of the 1900’s, the “third wave” restructuring movement of the 1980’s would focus on preparing students for the information/technology age.


Educator, Larry Hutchins, expressed the new “third wave” functionalist restructuring argument like this:


“The old design [schools] worked relatively well for the society it served; it brought schooling to millions of immigrants [who]… were needed to stoke the engines of the industrial society.  Today’s society no longer requires such a work force.  We need people who can think and solve problems using information and technology.”[31]

Maintaining the American empire, creating better goods and services, dominating world markets, and creating the new workforce of the future were all interwoven into the calls for a new and radical restructuring of schools.  Any discussion as to what type of society American’s wished to create or the relationship between school, democracy, culture, and the emerging cybernetic society was conspicuously absent from the concerns of third wave restructionists.  Furthermore, much like the efficiency production arguments of the industrial age, teachers were encouraged to develop curricular goals based on step-by-step procedures and time schedules.[32]


During the 1980’s, the educational reform movement increasingly found expression in a language of business efficiency, productivity, and the application of management theories to educational enterprise.  More than at any other time, test scores became the products of schools.  Students became the workers who create this product using instructional programs given to them by the “educational organization”.  Teachers were transformed into shop managers who preside over students’ production; school principals became the plant managers who manage the school personnel; and specialists, such as social workers or school counselors, were employed to handle students’ emotional needs.[33]  Transformed into classroom managers overseeing student-workers, teachers became further disengaged from the nature of teaching, as they were galvanized to follow prescribed “teaching recipes” in the form of pre-formulated lesson plans.  With the rise of prepackaged instructional materials, intellectual engagement with the curriculum had now become for many teachers, a luxury, as they were transformed into mere managers of learning.  For many teachers, as we shall see, they thought charter schools offered them a way to escape these educational prescriptions for learning and reconceived of education as an act of creativity.  The opposite was to occur; charter schools became the darlings of Wall Street and a Trojan horse for the onslaught of vouchers.





The development of the new educational discourse of business productivity and efficiency in the 1980’s set the stage for our current educational controversies at the beginning of the second millenium.  As America exited the 1980’s, unregulated capitalist markets monopolized mainstream thinking.  Determined that they were the  remedy, economists and pundits warned America to concentrate on market solutions to social problems in order to compete vigorously in the global arena.  Unregulated markets and privatization were seen as an advantage for all those interested in the notion of American progress.


With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, this vision of America, one of unregulated markets and capitalist hegemony became the primary vision for education as well.  Public schools were not only continually perceived as failing and mediocre, but the argument now began to pose the possibility that these public schools would better serve American citizens if they were forced to compete with schools that were privatized.  As the argument went, schools need to develop students the way that corporations develop products. School choice proponents now claimed that the government should provide vouchers to pay for the schooling they or their parents wished to attend.  The idea, claimed voucher adherents, was that private and public schools could then compete for the most academically able students.  The schools that prepared students for the emerging information/technology driven market in the most efficient manner would succumb to a “natural selection”.[34]


Friedman’s proposal for privatized education was now a fait acompli.  For the first time, in a real way, the notion of public education itself was being questioned by a new generation of social functionalists.  And while the educational discussions and debates in the past focused on how to bring America’s public school system up to speed, the new functionalist arguments actually questioned the very efficacy, existence, and necessity of public schools.  Education was now being conceived of as an “educational marketplace” and a new language of “choice” began to emerge to define the terms of the debate.  Progressive educational concerns regarding the role of democracy, equity, and social justice were purged from educational discourse in favor, once more, of competitiveness, efficiency and productivity needs. The new rhetoric of privatized schooling and “choice” defined the terms of the debate and Americans were now embroiled in a controversy over the continued existence of public education itself.


As we can see from modern day history, the controversy is now hyperbolic and the reactionaries rule the day with billionaires now assembled like automatons ready to monetize our children, close our public schools, de-bowel the teaching profession and turn students into commodities or products to be worked on.  When will it stop?  When we focus our wrath on a society that puts profit before people –- capitalism.  Until this is done, little more than reform will be on the agenda, from both the progressives and the reactionaries.  And as history as reminded those of us who manage to study it, reform, be it left or right is not what is needed; what is needed is revolution both within society and the institutions that comprise it.




[1] Kliebard, H. (1970). The Tyler rationale.  School review. 78. Pp. 259-262. In Harvard Educational Review. Goodman, J. (1965). Change without difference. vol. 65. No. 1. MA.


[2] Kincheloe, J. (2000). Contextualizing teaching. pp. 151. Longman: New York.


[3] ibid. pp. 152


[4] Cubberly, E. (1916). Public school administration: a statement of the fundamental principle underlying the organization and administration of public education. pp. 338.  Boston: Houghton Miflin.


[5] Kincheloe, J. (2000). Contextualizing teaching. pp.  153. Longman: New York.


[6] Goodman, J. (1995).  Change without difference. pp. 6. Harvard Educational Review.


[7] Bobbitt, F. (1912).  The elimination of waste in education.  Elementary School Teacher, 12.  pp. 259-271.


[8] Goodman, J. (1995).  Change without difference. pp. 6. Harvard Educational Review.


[9] Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press


[10] Bobbitt, F. (1913). Some general principles of management applied to the problems of city school systems. In S.C. Parker. Twelfth yearbook of the national society for the study of education. Pp. 21-22. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[11] Goodman, J. (1995).  Change without difference. pp. 10. Harvard Educational Review.


[12] Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education.  pp. 257. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


[13] Kincheloe, J. (2000). Contextualizing teaching. pp.  159. Longman: New York.


[14] Dewey, J. (1976) Experience and education. pp. 49. New York: Collier books (originally published in 1938).


[15] Dewey, J. (1940). Education today. pp. 357-358.  New York: Greenwood Press.


[16] Wirt, F. M. & Kirst, M.W. (1992). Schools in conflict: The politics of education. (3rd ed.). Berkeley: McCutchan.


[17] Brown v. Board of Education. 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686.


[18] Brown vs. Board II. 349, U.S. 294, 75, S. Ct. 753.


[19] Kincheloe, J. (2000). Contextualizing teaching. pp.  164. Longman: New York.



[20] Friedman, M. (1955) The role of government in education. In Robert A. Solow, Ed., Economics and the Public Interest. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press..


[21] ReThinking Schools. (1996). Selling out our schools: Vouchers, markets, and the future of public education. Milwaukee: WI.


[22] Orfield, G. (1969). The reconstruction of southern education: The schools and the 1964 Civil rights Act. New York: Wiley Interscience. 45


[23] Green v. School Board. 391 U.S. 430 (1968).


[24] Stent, M. , Hazard, W. , & Rivlin, H. (Eds.). (1973). Cultural Pluralism in Education: A Mandate for Change. New York. Appleton-Century Crofts.  pp. 73.


[25] Lugg, C.A. (1996a). For God and country: Conservatism and American school policy. New York: Peter Lang.


[26] Newsweek. 9 May 1983. Saving our schools. p. 50-58.


[27] Shor, I. (1986). Culture Wars: School and society in the conservative restoration. pp. 108. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


[28] Action for excellence: A comprehensive plan to improve our nation’s schools. The Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, The Education commission of the States, Washington D.C. 1983. pp. V, 3.


[29] Educating Americans for the 21st century. National Science Board Commission on pre-college Education In Mathematics, Science, and Technology. Washington D.C. 1983 “Executive Summary”.


[30] Ibid. Introduction.


[31] Hutchins, L. (1990). A+chieving excellence. Aurora, CO: Mid Continent Regional Laboratory


[32] Goodman, J. (1995).  Change without difference. pp. 10. Harvard Educational Review.



[33] ibid. 11.


[34] Kincheloe, J. (2000). Contextualizing teaching. pp.  171. Longman: New York.