Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools (Part I)

Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools

Federal interventions and measurements of schools’ success, teacher efficacy, and student achievement are a relatively recent development. Moreover, much needed attempts to address structural ills have brought up complex issues of pedagogy and student outcomes. We are still presented with widely variable local practice and degrees of support, which have made outcomes difficult to measure and success for future programs hard to predict (Easley 2005; Hirschland & Steinmo, 2003). In this post I will trace some of the more significant interventions and how they have shifted the debate in the past few decades.

According to Wong and Nicotera (2004), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), “set a precedent for the use of social science research in defining and examining... education” (p. 122). This landmark case and the Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate schools created an environment in education that allowed for more equitable conversations about educational opportunities, the observation of national norms for schools, and how to connect measurements with practice (Wong & Nicotera, 2004). One of the most significant of these interventions is a co-authored document published in 1966 by Coleman et al., provisioned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the title of Equality of Educational Opportunity. Under the direction of James Coleman, this was the first major study to evaluate metrics affecting student achievement nationwide, but it also introduced the complex problem of which structural elements in the student experience are most important to address. According to Hanushek, Coleman et al.’s report redirected focus from the organization of individual schools to student outcomes, including employment opportunities (2016, pp. 19-20). This entailed a shift in the definition of education, placing it within a broader social context. Coleman et al. (1966) argue that, “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context” (p. 325). American schools spent the next several decades focusing greater attention on a myriad of environmental and structural needs of students, with particular focus on improving outcomes of minority students by integrating schools. Many of these changes and differences in school effects made positive impact on students (Hanushek & Kain, 1972; Sewell, 1976), especially those in urban environments where socioeconomic differences are more evident (Hanushek, 2016).

Changes in federal and state policy made desegregating schools possible, and these changes improved learning conditions for students. However, these new, federally enforced measures did not go far enough to improve student achievement, nor did these policies recognize the positive effects of teachers. The Coleman Report brought about improvements in schools, but the new policies missed a great opportunity by failing to robustly support what teachers need in order to attain learning objectives, particularly the observation of how teacher effects increase students’ processing (Hanushek, 2016). Many scholars and commentators presented a counterargument to the Coleman Report, arguing that schools have a greater relative weight in positively influencing student outcomes than their communities and other external factors (DuFour & DuFour, 2010). Robert Marzano (2003) concludes not only that schools have a significant impact on student achievement, but also that, “schools that are highly effective produce results that almost entirely overcome the effects of student backgrounds” (p. 7). Schools, and the teachers within them, are the critical component for meaningful, positive reform in education.

U.S. Secretary of Education T. H. Bell formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1981, instructing the commission to examine the quality of education in the United States and to produce a report within 18 months. The report, published as A Nation at Risk (1983), was, like the Coleman Report, dramatic in its impact. Again, the emphasis was on student outcomes, and the overall assessment it presented was of an educational system in crisis. An interesting point that the authors make in A Nation at Risk that still resonates with many Americans now is the claim that the lack of progress in schools causes, “a dimming of personal expectations and the fear of losing a shared vision for America” (p. 324). The report aimed its efforts towards maximizing, “the best effort and performance from all students” (p. 324), making claims that schools are underserving our citizens and that without significant reform Americans will continue to become less competitive in our global economy and less able to succeed in the job markets domestically due to their lack of preparation. Critics of this influential book identified the most pressing issue, that is, the relative roles of federal and local authorities in shaping the educational experience. Guthrie and Springer (2004) state that, “a centuries-long American tradition of state plenary authority and local operating discretion is now giving way to a pressing national uniformity of federally imposed accountability requirements” (p. 7-8).

Check back soon for Part II of this series!