Building America's Schools: The Federal Contribution

reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar - 2004

coverTitle: Building America's Schools: The Federal Contribution
Author(s): Willis Rudy
Publisher: Associated University Presses, Cranbury, NJ
ISBN: 084534885x, Pages: 216, Year: 2003
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Willis Rudy has been a student of the history of

America ’s schools and colleges for over 50 years. This, clearly, well equips him to write on the subject. Indeed, to his name Dr. Rudy has a dozen or so tomes on collegiate schooling (e.g., Rudy, 1949; 1991).

Here Rudy attempts to bring off something really grand: a history of federal education policy, including both collegiate and K-12: “The present volume, it will be observed, has attempted, by reviewing the history of successive presidential policies toward education, to demonstrate how this field [education] attained its contemporary position as an essential national commitment of the government and the people of the United States” (p. 10). Rudy later adds, “These federal reactions and the critical circumstances that produced them, are the subject matter of this book” (p. 17). This is a tall and laudable order. So far as I can discern, nobody has done it. In fact, one strains to locate a volume that tackles the whole of federal K-12 education policies, to say nothing of federal collegiate policies too. That Rudy tries to do so in so few pages is, to be sure, audacious.

Chapter one is a two page introduction. Rudy begins his narrative in chapter two. Surprisingly, the first federal action cited is the founding of the

United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. Federal land grant policies begun twenty years earlier go unmentioned, oddly, until page 190, where they are mentioned in passing. Dr. Rudy then offers a fly-over of some of the big moments in federal education policy history, from the Morrill Act of 1862 to President William J. Clinton’s “cops in schools” program in the late 1990s. It is fast and easy reading: a high-schooler could follow the action without difficulty and move through the volume in a few evenings.

Yet, I found this book troublesome on a number of counts. In part, the enormity of Rudy’s objective accounts, in part, for the problems with this book. It is hard to imagine anyone covering two hundred years of policymaking in 200 pages and doing it well. However, this book also suffers from lax editing and the apparent limits to the extent of Rudy’s knowledge on k-12 schooling after 1965. To these matters I now turn.

Building America’s Colleges and Schools is marred by errors. Some may be dropped at the feet of the editor(s) at the press. We are told something was “causitive” instead of causal, “debatable” rather than debated, and that a situation was “ironical.” (p. 84) Other errors belong to the author. He mis-cites Gilbert E. Smith (1982) as Robert E. Smith (p. 64), James Traub (1998) as “Traubs” (p. 185), and makes more than a few peculiar statements. For example, Rudy proclaims “The role of the central government in

America ’s educational enterprises has indeed come full circle from the days of limited involvement. The federal establishment [has] now become the most influential force in the field” (p. 14). Setting aside the metaphorical confusion (to come full circle means to return to an original state), it is highly questionable that the federal government is “the most influential force.” In k through 12th grade schooling, the federal role remains modest. As Rudy well knows, the federal financial contribution to k-12 schools accounts for less than 10 percent of the total dollars spent. On occasion, Rudy unleashes a jaw-dropper. Near the book’s end we read that the “commercialized television” may be one factor that caused “the descent of a whole generation of American youth into a pitiful kind of semi-literate barbarism” (p. 193).

Bigger problems in this book appear to be the result of its brevity (necessitated by trying to cover so much in so few pages). Important matters are mentioned but not explained or simply left out. Rudy writes that the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of the 1930s “made loans to state governments and municipalities…to improve public facilities including schools. The impact of this program was rather limited, however, and it was slow getting started.” The reader’s mind wonders “Why?” but by the next sentence Rudy is bounding on to another subject. As for leaving matters out, one example will suffice. In the 1870s and 1880s, Congress considered a number of education bills that would have utterly transformed the federal role in schooling, making it nearly an equal partner with states. Rudy spends three pages on one of the bills (the Blair Bill), but does not mention the equally important Hoar or Pierce bills. It is unclear why. Furthermore, the brevity of the narrative sometimes decomposes into listing; it is one policy after another with little feel for the “the critical circumstances that produced them.”

A final class of problems is due to Rudy’s apparently limited knowledge of k-12 politics and policy from 1965 forward. This, along with shoddy editing, makes chapters 16 through 18 unreliable and frustrating reads. The narrative, at points, slides into a hodgepodge, with assorted doings during these years flung on the page one after another. Blatant partisan bias appears; Democratic Party policymakers are cheered, e.g., “Though frustrated from time to time by the inevitable complications of partisan politics, Bill Clinton never compromised his educational [policy] goals” (p. 189). Republican Party policymakers come off as manipulative, racist, religious fanatics (pp. 165, 183, 186).

There are stunning gaps in the historical record. The seminal report, A Nation At Risk (National Commission, 1983) is ignored as is President George H.W. Bush’s America 2000. There also are outright errors. To take one example, Rudy says that the Goals 2000 Educate America Act of 1994 would create national standards that “would guide students in identifying what they were to accomplish” (p. 168). Actually, Goals 2000 required participating states to create their own standards and assessments. A state, if it so desired, could have its standards deemed “world class” by submitting them to a federally-created council, which would assess their rigor. This difference is critical, as it indicates that Goals 2000 did not give the federal government power to change the curricula children studied; states’ (and localities’) rights over what children learn were undisturbed.

To Rudy’s credit, he gets much of the big picture right. That is no mean feat. Those who want a general grasp of the extent of the federal role in education through 1965 will find this volume useful. Those looking for more nuances or who want to understand how the federal role has shifted since 1965 and why are strongly advised to look elsewhere.


National Commission on Educational Excellence. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform.

Washington , D.C. : Government Printing Office.

Rudy, W. (1949). The College of the City of New York: A history, 1847-1947.

New York : City College Press.

Rudy, W. (1991). War and twentieth-century higher learning: Universities of the western world in the First and

Second World Wars. Rutherford , NJ : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Smith, Gilbert E. (1982). The limits of reform: Politics and federal aid to education, 1937-1950.

New York : Garland Publishing Company, 1982.

Traub, James. (1998, May 2). The end of affirmative action. New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1620-1623 ID Number: 11300, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:37:44 PM

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