If you ask American leaders about the overall goal of the nation’s education system, you’d likely get a broad set of answers: to prepare young people for the workforce; to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps; to create informed citizens ready to participate in popular democracy. Other western nations, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, provide their public schools with a national curriculum, roughly equalized budgets and government-produced exams. In contrast, the defining feature of American education is its localism; we have no shared curriculum, large funding disparities and little national agreement about what the purposes of schooling should be.
The absence of centralization leaves space for business leaders and philanthropists to define and fund what they see as priorities in education reform. Today, a broad coalition of standardized test and textbook manufacturers; mega-philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli Broad; and CEOs passionate about school reform, like Mark Zuckerberg, coalesce around an agenda that includes implementing Common Core academic standards and tying teacher evaluation, job security, and pay to students’ test scores. The underlying idea is that extraordinary teachers, with high standards for all students, can prepare every child to attend and succeed in college, regardless of a student’s socioeconomic disadvantages.
This goal—what the Gates Foundation refers to as “college-ready education for all”—represents a sea change from the traditional outlook American business leaders brought to school reform: one that sought to sort students and select only a few for higher-education, while sending the rest to the manufacturing, agricultural or service sectors. For instance, in 1906, the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education reported that young students need “training of a practical character that would prepare them for jobs in industry.” Education leaders at the time, such as Stanford president Ellwood Cubberly, agreed. He once wrote, “We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes. The employee tends to remain an employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner.”
In the decades before the Civil War, northeastern businessmen, many affiliated with the Whig Party, supported the efforts of the Common Schools movement to guarantee every child a public elementary education, which would ensure that factory workers were competent in basic literacy and math. To accomplish this goal without raising taxes—another priority of northern industrialists—an anonymous New York philanthropist published an 1842 manual advising schools that female teachers could be the cornerstone of “a cheap system,” since even the most talented women would be willing to work for half of what men of the “poorest capacity” would demand. State legislatures and local school boards embraced this penny-pinching advice. In 1800, 90 percent of American teachers were male; by 1900, over three-quarters were women.
The Tuskegee Institute, founded in rural Alabama in 1881 to serve the children of former slaves, offers insight on school reform at the turn of the century. Booker T. Washington, the school’s founder, was the most prominent education reformer in America, lauded by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and steel titan Andrew Carnegie. In 1903, Carnegie donated $600,000 to Tuskegee’s endowment. The Institute was famous for its hands-on vocational training; the entire campus had been constructed by students, who made their own bricks and laid them. Yet most graduates sought middle-class, not working-class lives. The majority went on to teach in black schools across the Deep South, educating a largely illiterate, poverty-stricken population.
Because of the biases of his time, on frequent Northern fundraising expeditions and speaking tours, Washington obscured the fact that Tuskegee students worked actively for black social mobility, portraying the schools’ graduates more as laborers than as educators. As his biographer Robert Norrell has noted, Washington was hardly as reactionary as his critics, like W.E.B Du Bois, portrayed him to be; he understood that racist assumptions about black inferiority contributed to the enthusiasm wealthy whites expressed for black vocational education. Yet as a pragmatist, Washington was unwilling to deny his students the funding that philanthropists like Carnegie could provide.
During the twentieth century, private interests drove a number of cyclical, sometimes conflicting education reform movements. From Chicago, Jane Addams built broad, elite support for an agenda of ending child labor and increasing the years of mandatory schooling. Across the country, politicians and school administrators were inspired by the ideas of the management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, and implemented complex new evaluation systems to rank and supposedly improve the work of teachers. One of the longest-lasting and historically fraught education reform movements was ability tracking tied to IQ tests, a so-called “social efficiency” agenda that consigned many non-white and working class students, as well as some middle-class girls, to courses in sewing, cooking, personal finance and “current events.” Testing companies marketed “intelligence” assessments later revealed to measure not the innate capacity to learn, but simply the quality of a student’s previous education. A 1932 survey of 150 school districts found three-quarters used IQ exams to assign students to different academic tracks.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement recast education in terms of equality: equal access to good schools, effective teachers and a curriculum with the ability to engage all children and hold them to high standards. Yet when the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education proved incredibly divisive, even in the black community, the national school reform agenda fractured. With the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, philanthropies like the Ford Foundation embraced the “community control” movement, which sought to abandon efforts at school integration and instead give black parents more power over the curriculum and pedagogy used at their neighborhood schools, as well as a voice in the hiring of teachers and principals. Since the early 1990s, however, Teach for America has been a particular favorite of corporate donors, who embrace the idea that elite university graduates selected through a national program, not local communities, can be the driving force behind school improvement.
In today’s post-recession climate, business-oriented reformers hope that more college degrees will invigorate the American economy, by better matching workers to open jobs. Schools are undoubtedly producing too few students ready for careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and math. Yet many economists dispute the idea that unemployment and economic inequality are primarily supply-side problems; of the professions most likely to grow in the coming decades, most—like high-skill manufacturing and dental hygiene—require on-the-job training and an occupational certificate, not a bachelor’s degree.
Today’s optimism—even romanticism—about the B.A. can seem misplaced in an economy where over half of recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, working as baristas, waiters and shop clerks. Still, unlike the corporate school reformers of yesteryear, today’s philanthropists are at least united around the goal of opening up a broad array of opportunity to disadvantaged children.
The emphasis on “college for all”—and on viewing the individual teacher, as opposed to the neighborhood or community, as the locus of educational change—has pushed aside other, potentially worthy goals, from integrating schools to giving students more opportunities for on-the-job learning outside traditional classrooms. The influence of technocratic philanthropists has changed the course of American education policy over the past decade, all without any major new federal legislation on school reform. So while the American educational system is highly localized, its policies are certainly driven at the national level, and in large part by private institutions. There is nothing new about business influence over public education.
Dana Goldstein is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. Her book on the political history of American public school teaching will be published by Doubleday in 2014.