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High Expectations: The Cultural Roots of Standards Reform in American Education

reviewed by Aaron Cooley - February 16, 2009

coverTitle: High Expectations: The Cultural Roots of Standards Reform in American Education
Author(s): William A. Proefriedt
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807748749, Pages: 208, Year: 2008
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The Washington consensus on public education often operates with a stunning case of historical amnesia. Elected officials, committee staffers, and think tank pundits continually seem to think that the state of the public schools used to be better in the past and that more accountability is the primary answer to improving education’s sorry state. Although teachers’ unions, committed parents, and community organizers are actively involved in rebutting the “better schools through more accountability” mantra, it is often left to the academy to produce works that dispel the prevalent myths that unfortunately guide so much of the educational policy debate.

William A. Proefriedt’s High Expectations: The Cultural Roots of Standards Reform in American Education performs this task of revealing the deeper story about how education got to its current point in a masterful fashion. In tight and lively prose, Proefriedt weaves a narrative that speaks to the core of the American political and educational predicaments. The volume draws from a variety of sources in the American canon that can lead the reader to the conclusion that the success of the standards movement is, in some sense, a historical inevitability given the intellectual heritage and history of the country. Proefriedt describes his task in the following manner:

This book makes the case that the standards movement in American education is not a recent eruption, the triumph of an insidious minority. It is rather the selective accumulation of our historical dreams; of our genius; of our myths, our self-deceptions, our celebration of the individual; of our can-do business culture; of our faith in schools and, yes, our good will toward the young; of our illusions and blind spots; and of our growing commitment to democracy. (p. 7)

The goal then is not simply to paint a one-sided picture of how the accountability regime has taken hold of the educational discourse, but to move beyond easy explanations for this fact. Below the superficial level of standards reform is a critical mission of the volume. Proefriedt asserts:

We barely scratch the surface of a critical understanding of the movement when we argue that its mandates are fine but need to be more adequately funded; or when we complain about the quality and amount of testing, and its turning of teaching into test preparation; or when we grumble over the impact of sanctions imposed on students, schools, districts, and states. (p. 7)

Another level of analysis is to be offered by Proefriedt, and its outcome is a story that is more nuanced than most policymakers will want to hear. Further, Proefriedt succeeds in making the rise of the standards movement a more complex story by demonstrating how it is woven into the nation’s history. What is quickly revealed by his work to those parents, activists, and scholars who seek to alter the accountability orientation of our schools is that their efforts conflict with several pillars of the American tradition and the deeply held values that support those traditional notions. Needless to say, this fact substantially blunts progressive efforts for reform.

The first section of the volume takes a historical look at the works of Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. Clearly, in referencing the founding fathers, we see just how far back the constituent elements of standards culture extend. Also, this section provides a poignant discussion of Jefferson and race as well as the founders’ views on Native Americans.

In a succeeding section, Proefriedt turns to the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. What Proefriedt finds compelling in Emerson’s contribution is his unique views on the individual. Proefriedt states:

Emerson’s version of American individualism focuses not on effort, merit, and the rewards of the marketplace, but on the differences that exist among us; its implications for curriculum diversity seem lost on the standards reformers. Emerson’s is not the sort of individualism they [standards reformers] embrace. (p. 60)

Here, we see an instance of the unfortunate intellectual two-step standards educational reformers often perform. That is, they take up an idea lodged squarely in the American psyche and morph it for their own purposes until its connections to the original term are tenuous and their motivation is seen to be transparently insincere.

The discussions of race that were mentioned in the founding fathers section are then taken up directly in a following chapter. Proefriedt moves skillfully through the works of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. This section excels in its attention to each author’s unique understanding of race in America. Each writer’s work is presented and discussed in context against the backdrop of the prevailing social and political discourses of the times in which they were written. Unsurprisingly, Proefriedt focuses on the role of education that each author presents. The analysis of Du Bois’ work is particularly insightful:

For Du Bois, education carried with it a danger precisely because it aimed to remove the blinders of students as they made their way in the world. Understanding the difficult world in which they lived, helped them to understand themselves. The standards reformers, with their endorsements in policy and practice of the dream of individuals’ overcoming obstacles and achieving success through merit, perpetuate the very blindness Du Bois sought to remove. (p. 85)

Considering the continued disparities in educational achievement and economic development among groups in the United States, the question of race and social circumstances that was of vital concern to those authors is still extremely relevant to the present day.

Any analysis of an educational issue in the United States must also discuss the evolving views of John Dewey. Proefriedt devotes the appropriate time to critically consider Dewey’s work and his impact on the future of public education and testing. Proefriedt points to the possible naiveté and blind faith Dewey had in the promise of America’s democratic experiment:

Unwilling to be categorized as a romantic reformer, Dewey always tried to champion educational ends that he thought latched on to forces he saw as emerging in American culture. He saw us moving toward a more cooperative and less competitive ethos, and urged the schools to contribute by their practices to this end. He saw society increasingly democratic and expected the schools in their structure, practices, and curriculum to make a significant contribution to that end. He sometimes allowed his hopes for the future to cloud his judgment about what direction American life and schooling would take. We have moved in directions quite alien to Dewey’s hopes. (p. 104-105)

One of the most ambitious sections of the book is Proefriedt’s tackling of the mid-century educational reformers and critics. This discussion is wide-ranging in covering the works of  Arthur Bestor’s The Restoration of Learning (1955), Hyman Rickover’s Education and Freedom (1959) and American Education—A National Failure: The Problem of Our Schools and What We Can Learn from England (1963), and James Bryant Conant’s Education in a Divided World (1948) and The American High School Today (1959). This period of scholarship on education clearly presents some of the most apparent ties to the present standards based educational reform movement. Of particular note are the themes of national decline and the possibility of losing standing in political and economic terms around the world. These assertions were effective in fear mongering then and, of course, are unfortunately familiar to us at present. The clearest lesson in the analysis of these works is that these themes became modern tools of rhetoric in the educational policy debates by seeking to link America’s schools with American foreign policy. This suturing enabled standards reforms to allege that critics of their ideas of educational reform were not only against changing our schools for the better, but also anti-American.

The final section that merits discussion focuses on a topic that rarely seems to come up in the educational policy discourse much anymore. That is the classic work of Bowles and Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (1976). The never-ending value of their work is its fundamental questioning of the purported aims and outcomes of our educational system. Their critical perspective confronts the educational status quo by contending that schooling may serve a function that is antithetical to its professed aims. Proefriedt describes their views this way:

For Bowles and Gintis, the failure to find school variables that contributed to lessening inequality forced us to look for causes of inequality in the structure of the American economy. The schools, they argued, could never do the job educational reformers had assigned to them because the ruling class had other purposes in mind. (p. 139)

Beyond not being able to meet the practical dimensions of succeeding to improve the lives of the masses, the school system was performing another function by developing an ideological justification for the dominant meritocratic notions of success. Proefriedt contends: “Not only, in their view, were the schools not fostering equality of opportunity; they were justifying inequality” (p. 139). However, as challenging as their ideas were to both educational scholars and policymakers, their work struggled to find an audience and activists to support it. In the statement below, Proefriedt gives a strong argument why this view continues to struggle to find traction:

Whatever one may say about the validity of the Marxist paradigm as a truth claim, one can see that the very determinism that it espouses is not likely to win the minds and hearts of those working in schools. Teachers, school administrators, and reform advocates do not wish to be told that their own purposes for schooling, such as self-fulfillment, the creation of a more democratic society, or economic opportunity, are lost as the school necessarily goes about its business of preparing workers for the hierarchical society of which it is a part. (p. 142)

This problem of agency in education is one that still confounds as well; the tension between our best hopes for a vibrant democracy and the ever-deepening moral abyss of neoliberal technocratic thinking remains.

The final section of the book provides a strong rallying cry for a rethinking of the considerations that are normally associated with educational policy. Proefriedt concludes:

We need to shift the educational debate from an argument about how we can best arrive at a set of agreed-upon and unexamined goals to an argument about where we as individuals and as a nation really want to go. Changes in pervasive educational ends are not likely to arise within the school community, unless they are accompanied by a willingness on the part of the larger society to raise serious and sustained questions about the kind of individuals we are developing and the kind of nation we wish to be. (p. 174)

These fundamental questions continue to be actively ignored, but as has become all too clear with the recent financial meltdown, we do this at our peril.

The overall impact of the volume is substantial regardless of one’s political and educational leanings. The text would be of interest to parents, activists, and educational scholars. Unfortunately, those who are most in need of learning the lessons outlined in the volume—politicians and policymakers—are probably the least likely to read it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15571, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:47:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Aaron Cooley

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    AARON COOLEY holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has mentored, tutored, and taught students in a range of diverse educational settings and previously worked at the North Carolina General Assembly. His writing has appeared in Educational Studies, the International Journal of Philosophical Studies, the Journal of Popular Culture, the Political Studies Review, and the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal (forthcoming).
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