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Federal Education Policy and Democracy

by Larry Cuban - 2015

This commentary answers two questions: (1) Do the articles in this issue make the case that the democratic principles and practices the authors champion have been damaged by the standards-based, testing, and accountability regime of the past three decades? and (2) In light of the historical absence of these principles and practices in mainstream U.S. public schools, why raise these arguments now?

I am in a quandary. In writing this commentary I am caught between conflicting values. I agree with the four authors’ conclusions that the past three decades of market-driven standards-based testing and accountability movement has undermined democratic ideas and practices in U.S. public schools. The arguments and evidence in the four papers about the effects of No Child Left Behind policy and other federal solutions to the problem of persistent academic failure of schools such as School Improvement Grants and parental “trigger” laws persuaded me that these policies hindered, no, undermined, democratic principles and school practices.  

Moreover, my agreement with these conclusions also comes from my own research into the history of economically driven educational policies over the past century (I studied the rise of vocational education between the 1890s and 1930s) and my direct experience in public schools for a quarter-century as a history teacher, central office administrator, and district superintendent.

Finally, I share the authors’ beliefs that a prime purpose for tax-supported public schools in the United States should be—note the value preference in the phrase—the cultivation of democratic principles and practices. In Tinkering toward Utopia, David Tyack and I make clear that K–12 education is a public good and one of the key ways of building and sustaining a democracy. So my agreement with these four authors about the negative effects of recent federal and state policies comes from both the head and the heart.

Yet—at this point readers would expect a “but” or “yet”—I feel the tension of other values that oppose the ones I share with the authors.

Because I am committed to historical inquiry into the making of educational policy and its application to classroom practice, I have found that linkages between economic growth and tax-supported public schools have been present since their founding in the early 19th century, surged in the latter decades of that century and have become a permanent presence in school policy making since World War II. Policy elites have consistently seen public schools as economic, political, and social vehicles for both public and private ends.2

In short, economic purposes for public schools (i.e., building human capital) have always rivaled democratic purposes (i.e., building citizens) and competed with aspirations for personal improvement (i.e., social mobility) in making policies for public schools. Policy elites, voters, and taxpayers historically have wanted their public schools to deal with all three purposes by turning children and youth into not only patriotic citizens committed to democracy but also ones who could work, pay taxes, vote, and achieve the American Dream of personal success. While one purpose or another has become more salient at particular times, historians have documented their presence in policy debates over the past two centuries. I value that knowledge highly.

Furthermore, in my research and that of other historians of education I found only one time when policy elites and the general public together expected schools to promote democratic principles and the practice of citizenship in classrooms. And that occurred in the early part of the 20th century with the “progressive education” movement. Even in those decades, the dominant idea—considered by policy elites to be democratic in that period—was to better fit the student to the larger society or “social efficiency,” as it was then called. In those years, a primary vehicle for students to learn how democracy worked came through the addition of new academic subjects called the “social studies,” particularly with new courses in “civics” and “problems in democracy” in secondary schools.2

By the end of the 20th century, however, intense criticism of youth’s paltry civic knowledge, the disappearance of courses in “problems in democracy,” and the reform crusade for standards, testing, and accountability, have produced dramatic drops in the two secondary school subjects expected to carry the knowledge of and skills in democratic principles and practices.3

So in 2014, as I look back at the past half-century of school reform—or at least since the Nation at Risk report—I cannot find evidence of a political majority in the United States pressing for the practice of democratic principles in public schools. Moreover, except for scattered schools across the nation, mostly private, numbering less than a hundred, have any states or districts launched and sustained schools anchored in democratic principles and practices remotely connected to what the four authors seek.4

Here, then, is the practical dilemma I face in writing this commentary.  My heart resonates to each paper’s call for “deliberative democracy” to be practiced in school, but my head tells me that except for isolated instances such as the progressive impulse of the early 20th century, no such political groundswell of support for democratic ideas and practices in schools existed in the past or now.

Of course, there has been much rhetoric about democracy in schools then and now drawing from the deep well of John Dewey’s work and other pedagogical progressives of the early 20th century. Thus, distinguishing between policy talk, policy action, and policy implementation is crucial to understanding what happened to democratic principles and practices in the past and, yes, even now.

Consider policy rhetoric or reform talk. National commission reports on students’ civic knowledge and skills, presidential pronouncements, academic conferences, and the like—have been abundant. Also policy action insofar as decision makers adopting social studies courses, particularly “community civics” and “problems of democracy” and making it standard in the school curriculum have indeed occurred. Yet the talk and curricular adoptions then have hardly made a dent in most school and classroom practices (or policy implementation) in what most students learn, much less do, after leaving school.5

With these distinctions between talk, action, and practice in mind, a brief look at the height of the progressive impulse in schools a century ago could shed light on what has happened to schooling in the past when democracy, as defined then, dominated reform-driven policy making.

For those unfamiliar with the tensions within turn-of-the-century school reformers, one wing was called “administrative progressives” who sought to apply “scientific management” ala Frederick Taylor to public schools. They measured everything in school and districts not nailed down in order to improve both policy and practice to better-fit students to society (historians call this notion “social efficiency”). Count here Edward Thorndike, Ellwood Cubberley, Charles Judd, and other measurement-driven educators who believed that a democratic, equitable curriculum scientifically assigned students, using IQ tests, to college preparatory, vocational, and other secondary school tracks. These top-down, policy-driven progressives pushed what papers in this special issue called “aggregative democracy,” not “deliberative democracy,” in schools.6

The other wing of reformers was called “pedagogical progressives.” Count here Dewey, Francis Parker, Harold Rugg, and others. They saw the schools as instruments of social learning that enveloped the whole child, taught independent thinking, and put into practice democratic principles in school self-government, classroom discussions of controversial issues, and real-world interactions between students and the community. They would have endorsed the idea of “deliberative democracy in policy and classroom practice.” But as historian Ellen Lagemann put it, among these two wings of progressives in the real world of policy decisions and school implementation, Thorndike won and Dewey lost. In other words, Deweyan-oriented reformers were largely unsuccessful in getting their ideas converted into policies or put into practice in schools. “Administrative progressives” determined to make schools into machines of “social efficiency” had far more influence on policies establishing school structures and practices.7

So while I resonate emotionally with the aims of the four writers in advocating policies that would advance democratic schools and practices, the historical facts are straightforward: At no time in the history of public schools were public schools even close to being the democratic institutions in either principles or practices as these authors seek.

Given my quandary of competing values, there are at least two questions that I need to answer to satisfy the editors of this special issue and myself.  

1. Do these articles make the case that the democratic principles and practices the authors champion have been damaged by the standards-based, testing, and accountability regime of the past three decades?

Yes, the articles, in different ways and in some cases elegantly,

 argue clearly and cogently that the market-driven standards, testing, and accountability reforms—spurred by the Nation at Risk report (1983) and capped by the No Child Left Behind Act (2002)—have undermined local control of schools, reduced the range of political voices in policy making, and lessened civic engagement in and out of schools.

Meens and Howe, Rogers et al., and Trujillo and Renée are especially strong in making their case and supplying evidence that NCLB, “trigger” mechanisms, and School Improvement Grants for turning around failing schools undermined “deliberative democracy” in both concept and action.8

While I am allergic to the conspiratorial connotation buried in phrases such as “corporate reform,” “privatization of public schools,” or “neoliberal” policies which the authors used, collectively they make clear and crisp points about how current federal and state policies convert citizens into consumers and enshrine market mechanisms into school practices, thus weakening efforts to establish democratic ideas and practices in schools.

2. In light of the historical absence of these principles and practices in mainstream U.S. public schools, why raise these arguments now?

As the articles so well point out the current reform passion among policy elites for top-down curricular mandates, testing, and accountability—let’s call it a 21st century incarnation of “administrative progressives” and “social efficiency” in action—leaves little room for revitalizing local control of policy decisions, resurrecting some version of civics as a subject engagement with the community, or teacher and student participation in a “deliberative democracy.” The authors directly and indirectly point to the tensions that exist within a capitalist democracy where technocratic values compete with democratic values (as captured in phrase “deliberative democracy”) for policy maker and public attention. They do a first-rate job of showing how historical practices that encouraged citizen participation and public policy debates are on their way to extinction in an increasingly centralized, national system of public schooling that has silenced parent, teacher, and student voices.

If that has been the case over the past thirty years, why do these authors in 2014 condemn these policies now? I can only speculate since I have neither asked this question of the authors nor have they presented answers in their papers. I offer three guesses.

First, articles by Trujillo and Renée, Rogers, et al., and Meens and

Howe examine the assumptions undergirding recent policies, review the research on School Improvement Grants, “trigger” laws, and NCLB in closely reasoned paragraphs. They find the policy assumptions flawed, the research basis for the policies weak, and, most important for their argument, top-down decisions that damage their version of “deliberative democracy.” Perhaps, such close analyses of these policies have already been made but I have not seen them done as well. So, my first guess is that these authors sought through close analysis of particular market-driven policies aimed at achieving only one of the multiple purposes of tax-supported schools to connect those policies to another purpose of public schools: cultivation of democratic principles and practices.

A second guess is that for decades, academics in schools of education have espoused “pedagogical progressives” beliefs in democratic principles and practices in public schools far longer than in other sectors of society where organizational efficiency and results were (and are) prized. David Labaree explains that while the “administrative progressives” triumphed in shaping school practices and even the mission of university schools of education,

Pedagogical progressivism . . . offered most education professors the mission they needed in order to infuse meaning into the their newly redefined work as teacher educators and functionaries in the educational machine. They did their teaching and research within the structure defined by Thorndike, but their hearts and minds belonged to Dewey. Not for nothing has Dewey’s picture been found on the wall in so many ed school offices for so many years.9

These authors, advocating democratic purposes for public schools, I would guess, fit this explanation.

My third guess is that these writers, even in light of the historical absence of these principles and practices, find that returning to the topic of tax-supported public schools’ competing purposes will broaden the constricted public talk and action about school improvement. Bringing the language and ideas of democracy that have been marginalized over the past three decades in the rush for market-driven policies to public discussions of U.S. schools is a crucial first step in widening policy discussions and bringing democratic ideas out of the closet where it has been stored for too long. “At its best,” two historians of education concluded, “debate over purpose in public education has been a continuous process of creating and reshaping a democratic institution that, in turn, helped to create a democratic society.” These authors perform that crucial task well.10


1. Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), pp. 63–71; David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982), pp. 105–113; David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 58–64; Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 6–25.

2. Herbert Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 27–29; Ronald Evans, The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004), pp. 107–121.

3. David Saxe, Social Studies in Schools: A History of the Early Years (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991); Hazel Hertzberg, Social Studies Reform 1880-1980 (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1981).

4. See the work of Deborah Meier who for nearly a half-century of public school worked advocated for democracy in schools. For example, Deborah Meier, “Democracy at Risk,” Educational Leadership, 2009, 66(8), pp. 45–49. Many of the schools that define themselves as “democratic” are private. See, for example, The Sudbury schools and a score of more schools affiliated with it at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudbury_Valley_School

5. A recent example of policy talk is: Heather Malin, et al., “Youth Civic Development and Education: A Conference Consensus Report” (Stanford, CA: Center on Adolescence, 2014); establishing as a graduation requirement service in the community or specially created programs of “service learning” are instances of policy action and implementation. See, for example, National Center for Educational Statistics, “Service Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools,” September 1999, NCES 1999-043.

6. David Means and Kenneth Howe include a section in their paper discussing the different wings of the early 20th century reform movement.

7. Ellen Lagemann, “The Plural Worlds of Educational Research,” History of Education Quarterly, 1989, 29(2), pp. 185–214.

8. I did not include the Kirshner and Jefferson paper because I read it as an act of imagination and hypothetical about the importance of extending “deliberative democracy” to youth of color in those schools identified as failing and primed to be restructured or closed. Except for extracurricular student government mechanisms and scattered instances of private and public schools that encouraged student participation, deliberations about organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional decisions was (and is) rare.

9. David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 158.

10. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 142.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-8
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17882, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 4:11:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Larry Cuban
    Stanford University
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    LARRY CUBAN is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University.
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