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To Educate A Nation: Federal and National Strategies of School Reform

reviewed by Holly Yettick - January 23, 2008

coverTitle: To Educate A Nation: Federal and National Strategies of School Reform
Author(s): Carl Kaestle and Alyssa E. Lodewick (Eds.)
Publisher: University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
ISBN: 0700615431, Pages: 320, Year: 2007
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To Educate a Nation is a broad panorama of the shifts in education policy that have evolved slowly over the past century. Contributing to the rich picture it presents are the diverse backgrounds of the book’s eleven authors. All were involved with the Advanced Studies Fellowship Program at Brown University. This program, sponsored by the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was designed to create a professional learning community of accomplished young scholars from multiple disciplines including history, policy and economics. With guidance from project director and education historian Carl Kaestle, these scholars spent three years debating and collaborating on the theme of “federal and national strategies of school reform”  (p. xi). This book is the result. As political scientist Jeffrey Henig writes in his forward, it is unusual in that it is organized around analytical themes that provide it with “a certain coherence of presentation atypical of books that stitch together separate chapters by authors with distinct views, distinct styles and diverse favorite terms and reference points” (p. ix). These themes fall into four broad categories: the federal role in school reform, intergovernmental relationships in education policy, equal educational opportunity and public/private sector involvement in education. Based on these categories, the book is broken down into four sections, each of which is introduced by the authors who contributed to the section.

Part I explores the growing federal role in education policy. Kaestle’s chapter, “Federal Education Policy and the Changing National Polity for Education, 1957-2007”, sets the stage by contrasting the federal role in education policy today with the way things were fifty years ago. He depicts a federal role that has not only increased but become increasingly complex as influential interest groups have grown more numerous, ideologically diverse and stratified. Also adding to the complexity is the tension between state and federal governments struggling to redefine a power structure in flux. In a conclusion that succinctly foreshadows the chapters to come, Kaestle writes:

The polity breeds entrepreneurship and initiative, which brings with it the risks of balkanization. The opposite risk is coherence through stifling standardization. Finding the desirable compromise is an excruciating, delicious puzzle of U.S. policy making. (p. 37)

In the following chapter, “Building the Federal Schoolhouse in Alexandria, Virginia”, the policy lens pans to the local level as Georgetown political scientist Professor Douglas Reed explores the unexpected consequences of Alexandria Public School officials’ resistance to federal court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. In casting about for a non-racial justification to preserve segregation, Alexandria school officials administered “mental maturity” tests to all incoming first graders, with the expectation that the results would prove black children unfit to attend all-white schools. As predicted, the tests did reveal a black-white achievement gap. But they also identified a significant number of white students with low scores. In response, a system of special education emerged that included “readiness” classes for “irregular students” of both races. Reed’s case study tellingly depicts the irony of the way in which resistance to one federal policy (integration) placed the district ahead of the curve in terms of complying with another (accommodating students with special needs) that was yet to come.

In “Dismantling Education’s Iron Triangle,” University of Georgia education professor Elizabeth DeBray-Pelot fast forwards half a century and expands upon the special interest theme foreshadowed in Kaestle’s chapter. Her research reveals the dissolution, in the 1990s, of the “iron triangle” of special interests, legislators and federal agencies that had soldered the reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education ACT (ESEA) since the 1960s. During this period, center-right think tanks, business interests and governors gained unprecedented access to legislators while former insider networks consisting of teachers unions and other groups of educational professionals were left out in the cold. As a result, non-practitioners had an extraordinary level of influence upon the 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind. Although No Child Left Behind did, in the end, bear the imprint of the “bipartisan standards movement of the 1990s” (p. 85), DeBray-Pelot concludes that the ascendance of new interest groups during the 106th and 107th congresses represented a sea change in the formation of federal education policy.

In Part II, the book’s lens zooms from federal to local, although the focus remains on the ways in which national movements and federal policies play out on these levels. In “Redistributing Resources Across School Districts,” University of California-San Diego economist Nora Gordon takes on a monumental task as she traces, in less than four pages, the evolution of school finance in America from a purely local phenomenon to the current complicated web of state, local and federal sources. She then argues persuasively that, “in the context of socioeconomic residential segregation, taxation by higher levels of government and intergovernmental grants are necessary mechanisms for redistribution in a locally based system” (p. 96). Finally, she uses Census data to present empirical analyses of the impact of Title I (federal funds designated for high-poverty schools) and school finance equalization suits. She concludes that Title I funding does not necessarily result in a net increase in total education funding because local revenue sources tend to decrease as federal funding flows into a district. She also finds that school finance equalization suits do result in additional local education funding, but often at the expense of other public programs such as highways, hospitals and welfare. Gordon’s intriguing findings left me wanting to know more about how she derived them. As I finished the chapter, I found myself wishing she had had more space in which to explain her work.

The following chapter,  “A National Movement Comes Home,” zeroes in on state responses to federal accountability measures. University of Massachusetts education professor Kathryn McDermott contrasts responses to these measures in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Although the two neighboring states are similar in many ways, events that unfolded prior to the passage of No Child Left Behind helped produce very different reactions to the Act. In Massachusetts, an early 1990s fiscal crisis combined with a crisis of public confidence in education to produce accountability reform linked with increased funding for schools statewide. This set the stage for the state to embrace No Child Left Behind. By contrast, the perception in Connecticut was that the state’s schools were fine -- with the exception of certain districts such as Hartford. This led to formal resistance in the form of a federal lawsuit against U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. McDermott’s chapter illustrates the ways in which local contexts impact the way in which federal education reforms trickle down to the states.

As is implied by the title, “State Responses to No Child Left Behind,” the final chapter of the section addresses a similar theme. In this piece, Marguerite Clarke, a senior education specialist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., rates the degree to which state accountability measures implemented prior to No Child Left Behind are in “congruence” with the Act’s requirements. She finds that states with policies that least resembled No Child Left Behind had made the fastest progress toward implementing the measure’s requirements by 2004.  However, three years after the passage of the Act, the states with high congruence scores were still more likely to be in compliance with the Act. Clarke then contrasts National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in high and lower-congruence states. She finds no significant correlation between NAEP performance and the existence of NCLB-like policies prior to the passage of the Act. A drawback of this analysis, which Clarke notes, is that NAEP is not aligned with state standards. This is of concern because NCLB requires students to be tested to ensure they are meeting the standards set by their states, which are not necessarily the same standards measured by NAEP. Also, Clarke’s use of the average percentage of students scoring proficient on NAEP in each state is a somewhat blunt measure. Even if Clarke had found a correlation between congruence scores and test scores, it might have been due to a statistical artifact in the form of an ecological correlation—an overstated correlation based on a rate or average. Clarke’s exploration of NCLB compliance in high and low-congruence states is stronger than her NAEP analysis.

In Part III, the focus shifts from No Child Left Behind/Title I to the more general topic of equal educational opportunity. In his chapter “From Progressivism to Federalism,” Pennsylvania State University education historian David Gamson explores educators’ evolving notions of academic ability. The cyclical nature of education reform is evident in Gamson’s description of 19th century attitudes toward equity, which, not unlike NCLB, emphasized uniform standards as a means of ensuring equal opportunity. However, as the school population grew larger and more diverse in the early twentieth century, it became painfully apparent that not everyone was meeting these standards. Progressive era notions of individuality combined with the rising popularity of IQ testing to create schools in which students were offered different experiences and expectations based upon their measured academic abilities. Gamson argues that the National Defense Education Act of 1958 solidified these early forms of ability grouping by providing additional funding for gifted education and counseling that emphasized the identification of gifted students. He concludes that ability grouping and the deep-seated assumptions that accompany it have continued to confound efforts to implement equity-based reforms.

In “Rodriguez, Keyes, Lau, and Milliken Revisited,” University of Wisconsin-Madison education historian Adam Nelson picks up soon after Gamson leaves off by exploring four Supreme Court decisions handed down in 1973 and 1974. Nelson argues that these decisions provided different and often contradictory visions that “created more confusion than clarity in terms of the legal and practical definition of equal educational opportunity in public schools” (p. 202). He calls for a general reconsideration and clarification of the legal meaning of equal opportunity in public schools, whether it be through racial integration, additional financial resources, special programs or academic achievement. The timing of this chapter is interesting. In June 2007, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, the Supreme Court added another wrinkle to the equal educational opportunity debate when it rejected school choice assignment plans that considered racial criteria. It would have been intriguing if Nelson had been able to consider the four 1970s cases in light of this latest landmark decision.

In the final chapter of the section, “Policies and Programs in Black High Schools,” Howard University educational psychologist Kimberley Edelin Freeman focuses the lens of critical race theory on a group that has often lacked access to equal educational opportunity: African American high school students. After reviewing the literature on developmentally appropriate schools for adolescents, she uses the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Surveys to investigate the degree to which these practices and programs have actually been adopted at predominantly black high schools. Her findings are consistent with critical race theory in that she concludes that schools with higher percentages of black students are significantly more likely to offer programs such as vocational education that are “not geared toward higher education and academic pursuits, but instead job training and menial roles” (p. 246). Thus, schools appear to be contributing to reproducing societal inequities. Interestingly, she also finds differences between what she calls “majority” black (51-75% black) and “predominantly” black (76-100% black) high schools. Predominantly black schools were most likely to embrace progressive practices such as mixed-ability grouping. By contrast, majority black schools were least likely to embrace these practices. A concern with this analysis is that the types of practices Edelin Freeman explores are notoriously difficult to identify with large-scale surveys. Many school officials, for instance, deny or claim to be unaware that they use ability grouping or tracking—a practice Edelin Freeman’s literature review defines as developmentally inappropriate (Raywid, 1985). Thus, a survey question asking about “tracking in core subjects” is likely to produce misleading responses. Other variables such as “interdisciplinary teaching” or “grades subdivided into small schools or houses” may differ so significantly in the extent to and manner in which they are adopted at different schools that they are barely recognizable as the same practices. Thus, Edelin Freeman’s call for further research on this topic seems especially apt.

In the final section of the book, University of Illinois education professor Chris Lubienski and early childhood education expert Elizabeth Rose delve into the politically charged world of public-private sector involvement. Lubienski uses market theory to explore the ways in which schools recruit students in an environment increasingly permeated by choice. Ideally, the competition produced by school choice would encourage schools to make substantive improvements in order to attract new students and avoid losing old ones. Yet in “School Competition in a Market Environment,” Lubienski finds that schools often provide little information on their academic effectiveness. Instead, they launch marketing campaigns designed to attract the most desirable or high-performing students by suggesting an environment of order and tradition. Lubienski finds this trend disturbingly undemocratic. He concludes, “Insofar as efforts to attract ‘better’ students reflect the new competitive incentives of education, they may ominously foreshadow a move by many schools away from a public mission of educating all” (p. 276).

In the final chapter of the book, Rose, a project director at Central Connecticut State University, provides an enlightening contrast to K-12 education’s recent move toward school choice by describing an environment in which public-private, market-based options are already well-established. “Where Does Preschool Belong?” describes an early childhood education and childcare market that developed, in the second half of the twentieth century, largely outside the purview of the public schools. The resulting patchwork of public-private options varied starkly in quality, cost and availability. Rose concludes on a more positive note than Lubienski as she notes that this market-based system has had both weaknesses and strengths; the main challenge in maintaining the delicate balance that permits public and private options to coexist peacefully in an environment in which private providers have historically been predominant is moving increasingly toward publicly-funded universal preschool. Her analysis should be required reading for any policymaker who supports market-based approaches to K-12 education and wants to get a sense of the challenges and rewards that may lie ahead.

The same could be said for the book as a whole. As policy makers consider the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they would almost certainly benefit from this thoughtful and diverse overview of federal and national reform’s earlier incantations and effects. There is no reason to repeat the mistakes of the past when eleven top scholars can help you use it to provide a potential blueprint for the future.


Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 127 S. Ct. 2738, 168 L. Ed. 2d 508 (2007).

Raywid, M. (1985). Family choice arrangements in public schools: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 55(4), 435-467.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 23, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14912, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:45:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Holly Yettick
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    E-mail Author
    HOLLY YETTICK is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice concentration of the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Her research interests include issues of educational equity such as detracking and media coverage of educational research.
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