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America's Public Schools: From The Common School To "No Child Left Behind"

reviewed by Robert L. Hampel - 2006

coverTitle: America's Public Schools: From The Common School To "No Child Left Behind"
Author(s): William J. Reese
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801881951, Pages: 355, Year: 2005
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Bill Reese’s new book is an excellent survey of the history of public elementary and secondary schools. It should be read by undergraduates, graduate students, historians of education, and policy makers. Each set of readers will learn much from this first rate interpretive synthesis.

Undergraduates will be spared endless references to other books and articles, points of little interest to young readers. There isn’t a single footnote or endnote in America’s Public Schools, and mention of other historians is sparse. Most other introductory surveys pile on the notes and overwhelm students with summaries of the works by, and debates among, dozens of historians. In contrast, Reese keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, providing a thorough bibliographical essay at the very end for students eager to learn more.

Moreover, Reese does not try to pack every topic, name, event, and idea into his book. He begins with a chapter on the origins of the common school rather than starting with colonial schooling. That choice let him focus the remaining eight chapters on the century from the 1870s to the 1970s. Within each of those chapters he highlights a few recurring topics and themes, such as the primacy of urban educators in shaping our schools before World War II and the utopian streak in many reforms at all times. In contrast, most textbooks offer no overarching arguments and instead disgorge far too much disconnected factual information. Few students will get lost in this book (and if they do, I would assign them the task of writing subheads in place of the typesetter’s miniature pencils that mark new sections within each chapter).

The undergraduates’ instructor can easily supplement the book with additional material. The book has no photographs or other visuals; tables and charts are also absent. When I assign this book, I will gather those and use them to illustrate Reese’s points. I’ll also fill in some gaps—school finance, the junior high school, suburban schooling, court cases unrelated to integration or special education, the consolidation of small rural schools, and comparisons to private schooling. Better for me to do that than expect the author to expand his sizable book by another hundred pages. Had Reese tried to include everything, the book would have suffered the same overload that he sees and regrets in the public schools.

For graduate students, the book offers both substantive and methodological lessons. The account of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is particularly skillful. No one should equate Progressivism and John Dewey after reading Reese’s second and third chapters. He convincingly demonstrates the European origins of much Progressive thought, and he also spotlights manual training and kindergartens in the 1870s and 1880s as significant innovations that preceded Dewey. He is rightly cautious in referring to Progressives as if they held similar views. Instead, Reese focuses on the issues at stake: Would schools stress efficiency or democracy, a choice he sees as “the major fault line in school improvement” in the first half of the 20th century (p.121)? Those options divided Progressives, as did the important issue Reese discusses in chapter six: What did it mean to take seriously the fact that individual students differed enormously?

In regard to methods, this book is a wonderful model of the apt use of examples. We historians often begin our paragraphs with a claim, then offer three or four pieces of evidence to substantiate our point. Sometimes the claim is already well established by other scholars, so the examples are illustrations rather than proof. That is often the case in this book, but Reese draws fresh examples from his own reading in a wide range of nonarchival primary sources: professional journals, school board reports, government publications, textbooks by education school faculty, magazine articles, and more. He could have easily filched his anecdotes from the publications of his colleagues in the history of education but, as far as I can tell, he did not borrow in that way. Graduate students will see how the well chosen quotes and vignettes bring to life the abstractions that too often plod across the pages of our introductory textbooks. Their professors can also select several pages where Reese is putting forth new material, and then compare the evidence for those claims with several pages where he makes familiar points, even if he always uses evidence drawn from his vast reading in primary sources.

For historians of education, this book is not only a superb text for our classes; it is also an opportunity to reflect on where we still need to know more. Reese is so thorough that my own list of neglected topics is not long. First, we need to know if the Progressives keen on managerial efficiency were in fact as adroit as they claimed and we tend to assume. For instance, were they as skillful at raising and spending money as other public administrators?  We won’t know until we have more case studies of the kind an economic historian will respect, and that approach is out of fashion among today’s historians of education. Second, was the academic “track” in high school as good as everyone says it was? Instead of addressing that question directly, we prefer to bemoan the inferiority of the other tracks rather than try to establish whether the top tier was truly rigorous.  Third, is the history of standardized testing as dismal as most historians portray it? Instead of diatribes like Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test,1 we need biographies of individuals such as Ben Wood, head of one of the three testing agencies that merged to form ETS in 1947, who appreciated the democratic and liberating potential of well made tests.  Finally, I’d like to see more authors make use of comparisons to private schools. It would be instructive to assign Arthur G. Powell’s history of independent schools in the same course with Reese’s book.2 What a contrast in regard to how the two sectors provided personal attention, one of the alters where all educators worship but then act in very different ways. Yet we rarely have histories that span public and private schools (or do comparative work across national boundaries).

Policy makers should also read this admirable book. Any legislator who thinks a single law or clutch of laws will revolutionize education will learn that there are many reasons why change is usually slow and shallow. One major theme running throughout these chapters is the persistence of traditional instruction (and, to a lesser extent, curriculum) in both elementary and secondary schools. According to Reese, there were many reasons for that, ranging from working class parents’ respect for traditional education to large class size to college entrance requirements. By my count, Reese offers 10 reasons for the slow pace of change. But I would like to offer another: This book is itself a demonstration of the useful aspects of traditional approaches.

The format and substance of this book is not a sharp break from the customary ways historians write. Reese’s approach to history is traditional—lively narrative based on meticulous research. When done well, traditional anything can be more flexible than its critics let on. For instance, this book will reach many readers, as I hope I’ve made clear by now. It can also be supplemented by the instructor’s choice of additional materials. A good traditional lecture based on these chapters would be valuable to many students. What I am suggesting, in short, is that traditional instruction need not shackle an able teacher, just as the traditional approaches employed by historians did not preclude many choices and options for Reese. The genre covers many possibilities, and that is another reason why innovations do not usually sweep the field. The traditional practices have within themselves space to be innovative, especially when used creatively by talented teachers.

We owe thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for giving us this book and for publishing, in 2004, John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education.3 We now have two well written interpretive overviews that supplant what has been the best one volume survey, Robert Church and Michael Sedlak’s excellent 1976 book.4


 Lemann, N. (1999) The big test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


2 Powell, A. G. (1996). Lessons from privilege. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

3 Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

4 Church, R. L. and Sedlak, M. W. (1976). Education in the United States. New York: The Free Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1655-1658
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12215, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:40:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Hampel
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT HAMPEL (University of Delaware) is the Secretary/Treasurer of the History of Education Society. He is now writing a book on the various “shortcuts”Americans have pursued to make education (or at least the credential) both easier and faster.
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