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The Penetration of Technocratic Logic into the Educational Field: Rationalizing Schooling from the Progressives to the Present

by Jal Mehta - 2013

Context: No Child Left Behind is only the most recent manifestation of a longstanding American impulse to reform schools through accountability systems created from afar. While research has explored the causes and consequences of No Child Left Behind, this study puts the modern accountability movement in longer historical perspective, seeking to identify broader underlying patterns that shape this approach to reform.

Purpose and Research Design: The study explores the question of the short and longer-term causes of the movement to “rationalize” schools by comparing three major movements demanding accountability in American education across the 20th century: the efficiency reforms of the Progressive Era;, the now almost forgotten movement toward accountability in the late 1960s and early 1970s;, and the modern standards and accountability movement, culminating in No Child Left Behind. This paper considers the three movements as cases of school “rationalization” in the Weberian sense, in that each sought to reduce variation and discretion across schools in favor of increasingly formal systems of standardized top-down control.

Findings: This impulse to rationalize schools cannot be explained by interest group or partisan explanations since the reformers defy easy ideological categorization. . Instead, the reforms can be understood as a penetration of “technocratic logic” into the educational sphere. In each movement, this process exhibited a similar pattern: (1) the identification of a crisis of quality which destabilized the existing educational status quo; (2) the elevation of a technocratic logic, backed by the knowledge base of a high-high status epistemic community; (3) the rallying of ideologically diverse powerful actors external to the schools behind a commensurating logic that promised control over and improvement of an unwieldy school system; and (4) the inability of education to resist this technocratic logic (and often to be co-opted by it) due to teaching’s historical institutionalization as a feminized, weak, bureaucratically-administered field lacking its own set of widely respected countervailing professional standards.

Conclusions/Implications: This history suggests that unless teachers are able to develop and organize a stronger field, they will remain at the whim of external actors. It also suggests that top-down accountability-centered approaches are limited if the goal is to consistently produce teaching that can help students engage in higher level academic work. Rather than continuing to pursue these rationalizing strategies, this analysis and emerging international evidence suggest that a more promising approach would be to work towards professionalizing the educational field.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 5, 2013, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16947, Date Accessed: 9/19/2021 9:56:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Jal Mehta
    E-mail Author
    JAL MEHTA is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research focuses on the intersection of social policy, the professions, and politics, with a particular interest in how knowledge and expertise can be mobilized for widespread social improvement. His forthcoming book, The Allure of Order: The Troubled Quest to Rationalize a Century of American Schooling (Oxford University Press), investigates the causes and consequences of educational rationalization for academic values, for the teaching profession, and for social justice. He is also working on a project, The Chastened Dream, about the limits and possibilities of marrying social science to social policy to achieve social progress across the 20th century, as well as a contemporary study, In Search of Deeper Learning, on varied approaches taken by United States high schools that are aiming for the top of the traditional learning taxonomies. He is also the co-editor of The Futures of School Reform (forthcoming, Harvard Education Press).
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