Saturday, March 01, 2008

School Reform in Massachusetts: Comparing Educational Initiatives in 1893 and 1997

School Reform in Massachusetts: Comparing Educational Initiatives in 1893 and 1997
Michael Lorenzen

(I wrote this paper back in 1999. It had previously resided on a now defunct website. It is a bit dated but I feel it may be of interest to some readers.)

The concept of reforming and changing schooling is not a new idea. This desire to make schools better has a long tradition. There are many examples of this throughout American history. However, one good example is the case of schools in Massachusetts. Two documents demonstrate the different ways educational reform has been approached. This essay will examine the written record of a speech made by Charles Eliot in 1893 where he laid out six key changes he felt were necessary for grammar schools in Massachusetts. This essay will also look at report published in 1997 by the Massachusetts Department of Education examining five years of state mandated educational reform initiatives in schooling. Surprisingly, many of the themes addressed by Eliot in 1893 are still being thought about in 1997 although there are also many differences in the documents.

Description of the 1893 Speech

Charles Eliot, the President of Harvard University, gave a speech at the Massachusetts State Teachers' Association Conference in December of 1893. The speech was titled, "The Grammar School of the Future." A written version of this speech was included in a collection of Eliot's work, Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses , which was published in 1898. As such, the written version of the speech has been edited and probably reads slightly different that what was presented at the conference. However, as the written version was published only a few years later and was prepared by the same author it is reasonable to assume the intellectual content remained unchanged.

As President of Harvard University, Eliot was in a position that was respected and his words would have been given serious consideration by the conference attendees. Further, Eliot had developed a reputation as an educational reformer. Although the speech was delivered to Massachusetts educators, it is reasonable to assume that Eliot intended for his ideas to be disseminated nationally and be given consideration beyond Massachusetts. This is evidenced by the inclusion of the speech in Educational Reform: Essay and Addresses. This speech then was delivered with the purpose of influencing the reform of schools nationwide.

There are six main reforms considered in Eliot's speech. To begin with, Eliot wanted every grammar school to have a playground. He thought this was important for both the health of the students and to create a better learning environment. Secondly, he believed that schools should purchase curriculum materials such as books and maps. He did not believe that a bare classroom where only the teacher had the textbook was conductive towards a learning environment. Not surprisingly, Eliot also thought that additional funding was necessary as a reform in and of itself. Further, he was appalled at the large class sizes of the day, which had one teacher with fifty or sixty students. Eliot wanted to move towards a teacher/student ratio near 25 to 1.

Finally, Eliot wanted teaching at the grammar school done closer to the university model. He saw several experienced teachers organizing and directing learning while assistant teachers saw to the day to day operation of the classroom. Students would meet infrequently with experienced teachers who would direct the overall curriculum. The assistant teachers then conducted the daily lessons. This method of teaching would allow for the experience of the lead teachers to be spread out among a larger number of students while still allowing for the students to have access to an assistant teacher on a daily basis.

It is evident that Eliot had assumptions of what was best for students. His ideas lend themselves towards an active learning, hands-on classroom environment. Eliot wanted the students to have access to books, maps, and other curricular materials so that they could directly participate in the learning themselves. He wanted students to have the opportunity to have a playground so that the students would be able to be physically active which was both healthy but also allowed the students to get rid of excess energy allowing them to concentrate on their schoolwork. An emphasis on small class sizes as well seems to indicate that Eliot wanted the students to actively participate in the learning rather than sit and listen to a lecture. This leads one to believe that Eliot believed that learning was an active process and that the role of the student was to participate directly in his or her own schooling.

The above assumptions clearly impact Eliot's vision of the role of the teacher and the organization of the educational experiences in the school. Again, Eliot's belief in small class sizes allows the teacher to give more attention to each individual student, which leads away from the lecture towards more one-on-one and small group learning. The acquisition of curricular tools that allow students to learn on their own also gives the teacher more opportunities to direct individuals in learning outside of lecturing. Eliot's desire to use a university approach to teacher organization in his view would allow for experienced teachers to share their expertise with both students and assistant teachers, which would create a more learner friendly classroom as well as empower the teacher to set curriculum. It is apparent that Eliot assumed that the organization of the educational experience and the role of the teacher were to allow for the student to actively become engaged in education. Further, and most importantly from the point of comparison with the next artifact, this university model clearly placed a great deal of responsibility for the curriculum with the teacher. Eliot had strong views on what he felt schools should teach but ultimately in this model the decision on curriculum and assessment was left to the teacher.

Description of the 1997 Report

In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature passed The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. This law called for changes in school funding, statewide student testing, and statewide standards for schools and teachers. To bring this about, Massachusetts allocated over two billion dollars to bring about reform mandates. In 1997, the Massachusetts Department of Education published Education Reform in Massachusetts: A Progress Report, 1993-1997. This was distributed in print form but it was also placed on the Massachusetts Department of Education World Wide Web site. The purpose of the report was to allow for citizens and politicians to see how the reform was being carried out.

The report organizes the description of the reforms around the goals that the original legislation laid out. Over half of the reforms deal directly with state intervention in the curriculum or in graduation requirements. The state has mandated a statewide curriculum encompassing what the state considers core academic subjects. All schools in the state must conform to this statewide curriculum. Further, all elementary schools must spend 900 hours an academic year in the study of "serious" subjects. For secondary schools, this requirement is 990 hours in core academic subjects. The state is requiring testing of all 4th, 8th and 10th graders to ascertain how well each student is doing. These tests are not intended to be punitive but students failing them may be required to take remedial classes to get them up to state standards. A similar test is required of all 3rd graders to test reading skills. Massachusetts is also changing graduation requirements statewide. All students must pass a 10th grade proficiency exam to receive a diploma. Failing to pass this test will result in a denial of graduation.

Massachusetts is also concerned with the quality of its teachers. New teachers will be required to pass a test of subject competency in order to be certified. (After the publication of this report, the first tests were given this year. To much public outcry at the perceived low quality of teacher education in the state, half of the potential new teachers failed.) All teachers after certification are required to participate in "serious" professional development that relates to their subject knowledge or in teaching skills.

Other reforms are being tried as well. Early childhood education is now a priority and it is receiving over one hundred million new dollars in funding. The State Board of Education was reconstituted with fewer members all of whom were appointed by the Governor. The method of school funding is being rethought so that all schools receive the same basic "foundation" funding. Educational technology use is being encouraged and matching grants are being awarded to schools for this purpose. Charter schools have been introduced to give students (and parents) a choice of schools. School districts are being measured on several scales including success rates on the state student testing, dropout rate, and other factors. Districts not achieving a certain level can be taken over by the state. Finally, education regulations are being reformed to simplify them. (Although, it would seem, the passage of this legislation would actually complicate regulations more.)

It can be difficult to see all of the assumptions that were behind the passage of this reform legislation. The large variety of educational reforms being tried at the same time further makes this difficult to ascertain. However, one clear assumption is evident. Massachusetts does not believe that teachers or school districts can be trusted to provide a "serious" education to students. It is evident from this report that Massachusetts does not believe that public schools are providing a strong education to students. The reform legislation indicates that it is not believed that schools are teaching core academic subjects enough and that students are graduating lacking sufficient knowledge of these core subjects. Further, Massachusetts has serious doubts about the quality of the teachers in the schools.

One assumption about learning that is apparent is that it is believed that a basic, core knowledge should be learned by all students regardless of their backgrounds. The very real presence of state testing throughout schooling coupled with mandatory exam passage for graduation is designed to assure that students actually acquire this knowledge. The role then of the teacher is to instruct the students in this state-dictated curriculum. The implementation of this legislation shifts responsibility for curriculum design and assessment to the state away from the teacher and the school district.

Comparing the Two

There are several ideas that Eliot and the educational reformers in Massachusetts a century later agree upon. The first is the need for additional funding to carry out reforms. Eliot simply called for more money for schools. Current Massachusetts reform concentrates additional money in three different fashions. All schools are entitled to a certain level of "foundation" funding. This would appear to be an attempt to address educational funding inequities between differing school districts. Massachusetts believes that early childhood education is important and a large amount of the new money is going towards it. Finally, educational technology is seen as important to student success and matching grants are being used to encourage school districts to acquire more of it.

The current acquisition of educational technology compares favorably to Eliot's reform ideals. Eliot wanted books, maps, and other curricular materials to stimulate the student. Educational technology serves a similar purpose. Computers and the Internet allow students to explore knowledge on their own. Educational technology leads towards active learning for the most part. It is not certain if this is why the reform was selected by the state. After all, the reform could have been geared towards orientating students towards educational technology because this knowledge is a valuable job skill. Regardless, it serves a similar function in the classroom as does Eliot's books and maps.

This emphasis on giving students access material outside of the lecture is very much in John Dewey's idea of students and active learning. Although Dewey has been interpreted in many ways, it is evident that Dewey approved of materials that made core subjects such as arithmetic, geography, and grammar more appealing to the student. Wrote Dewey (30), "The legitimate way out is to transform the material; to psychologize it - that is, once more, to take it and to develop it within the range and scope of the child's life." Allowing students to use books, maps, computers, and other tools allows the student to see the material in a more relevant way that the student finds more attractive. Both Eliot and the educational reformers in Massachusetts appear to have faith in this.

The real change in reform assumptions in Massachusetts between the centuries is the emphasis on the role of the teacher. Eliot showed some concern about the teacher in that he wanted small class sizes. However, his university model of teaching also showed his desire to place responsibility for curriculum in the hands of the experienced teachers. This is very different in the late 20th Century version of Massachusetts educational reform. Massachusetts is now directly dictating what is important for the student to learn by controlling curriculum, requiring a set number of hours in the study of core subjects, mandating numerous state tests, and requiring passage of an exam for graduation.

This change has come about from a perceived lack of serious education in the schools. Wrote Sedlak et al (preface, x), "There appears to have developed an implicit 'bargain' between students in virtually all of our high schools, which results in a de-emphasis on academic learning and student disengagement from learning. The bargain is negotiated, albeit tacitly, between two parties, both of which have resources, but unequal power. This bargain determines the level of academic learning that takes place in the classroom. Although content and the acquisition of knowledge ultimately suffer, the bargain struck in most classrooms furthers its primary goal of making the relationships between educators and students more comfortable and less troublesome."

However, this bargain is exactly what those outside of education want to eliminate. Since the schools are in on the bargain, the reformers feel they need to take the school out of the decision on what to teach and how to assess the learning. The community in Massachusetts wants students educated rigorously in serious subjects they believe are important to success. They do not want the students taking easy subjects and they do not want students being allowed an easy time while in class. They want the students challenged academically and they want the teachers to push high standards. Requiring a test for graduation is an attempt to bestow value on what is believed to be a tarnished diploma. The notion that teachers are in on this publicly perceived illegitimate bargain has eroded confidence in the teachers and now the state is placing additional standards on the teachers.

The role of the student has changed between the times of these documents as well. While Eliot clearly intended for the teacher to have a great deal of control of the curriculum, the student invariably has a great deal of say in what is learned in an active environment. A student, by choosing which curricular tools to use, helps to educate herself. A student in Massachusetts today still has this option. There are libraries, maps, and computers that can be used to pursue learning independently of the school curriculum. However, while the teacher in Eliot's vision of reform would be guiding this independent study and could consider this in the assessment of the student, students in Massachusetts are all assessed by same standard tests given by the state. No knowledge of what the student has independently acquired can be assessed unless the student studied exactly what was covered on the different exams.

A good example of why many wanted more "serious" core subjects studied in schools with regular state assessment can be found in a book by H. G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights. Wrote Bissinger (142), "There were other football players with light schedules. One of his teammates, Jerrod McDougal, had taken senior English the previous summer so he wouldn't have to grapple with it during football season. His class rank was in the top third, but because of football Jerrod wanted as little challenge as possible his senior year. With English out of the way, he was taking government and the electives of sociology, computer math, photography, and food science." Other details in the book reveal that even in serious classes, the level of learning can be low. The vast majority of people in the community want students educated in core subjects and they do not want student like Jerrod having the option of picking easier schedules that are seen as not being as rigorous.

Looking at the changes in thinking about reform between 1893 and 1997, the new emphasis on state standards in schooling is not surprising. Wrote Cusick (1992), "Individual freedom runs all the way through the system. Parents may or may not support the school board; superintendents may support or oppose the state department; state department staff may alter the intent of federal policy makers. People make and exercise personal decisions, enter and take part on their own terms, and regards these as their rights. Students mix their classes, cultures, and friendships with school requirements; teachers adjust their curriculums to their predilections, create their student relations, and support and oppose the principles as they choose. Reformers decide schools need accountability, or principals decide their teachers have too much or too little power. Teachers decide students need more freedom. Each member of the system is free to make his or her own decision and set out on a course of action."

What exists then in Massachusetts's schooling is not a surprise. The changes and similarities in Eliot's thinking and the thinking of reformers today make sense. Over time, teachers and districts have made decisions based on their own opinions on education and their personal desires on what to teach in schools. The community has influenced these decisions. Students have bargained with teachers to get courses that are easier and more to their liking. This has resulted in the perceived value of the education having gone down in the eyes of politicians and many in the community. This has resulted in a reform movement that has chosen to dictate a new curriculum in schools that is seen as a return to a serious study of core subjects. This reform movement was successful in imposing its vision on the education system in Massachusetts. Over time, this vision of reform will be changed as all the players (students, teachers, community, and politicians) continue to participate in shaping it.

Works Cited

Bissinger, H. G. (1990). Friday Night Lights. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Cusick, Philip (1992). The Educational System: Its Nature and Logic. New York: McGraw Hill.

Dewey, John (1902). The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliot, Charles. (1898). 'The Grammar School of the Future" in Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses. New York: Century Company.

Massachusetts Department of Education (1997). Education Reform in Massachusetts: A Progress Report, 1993-1997.

Sedlak, Michael et al. (1986). Selling Students Short: Classroom Bargains and Academic Reform in the American High School. New York: Teachers College Press.

No comments: