EdReform in the Modern Era

Most of what is considered innovative today has a long sordid history behind it. American education reform over the last hundred years has been driven by some recurring themes: early learning, school models, standards-based reform, talent, school autonomy, student engagement, career preparation and new personalized learning.

Following is a short history of modern reforms in U.S. education. Some of you know parts of this story well; some of you have studied the history and have a long view. I’d welcome your comments and additions.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree, believed that every child was born with potential and that children should be allowed to be free to explore and play within their environment. In the early 1900s, Montessori visited the United States to share her child-centered approach to teaching–a method now used by many preschools around the world.

After World War II in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, a preschool teaching method was developed based on children’s symbolic language and a project-oriented curriculum. The environment was considered to be an important aspect of the child’s development and often considered as the “third teacher.” The Reggio Emilia Approach assumes the child to be interested in learning and experimenting through inner motivation.

The first years of life lay the foundation for future skills development, well-being and learning. Early childhood education and care (ECEC) can improve cognitive abilities and social and emotional development, reduce poverty and improve social mobility. Over half of the OECD countries have organized systems of early childhood care and education with big differences in access for high and low incomes in the U.S.


At the turn of the last century, John Dewey launched a lab school at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and wrote his first major work, The School and Society. In civil society, school and psychology, he preached action and application. He’s the father of applied and project-based learning. He argued for a balance of student-centered and content-rich learning. He led the professionalization of teaching.

After a century of underground activity (e.g., Seymour Fliegel as the Director of Alternative Schools in New York in the 1970s), Dewey reappeared in the form of 1990s school networks including Big Picture Learning, Expedition Learning (now EL Education), High Tech High and New Tech High.

Career Education

A hundred years ago, factories were facing a shortage of skilled labor and public schools were seeing an influx of immigrants and farm kids. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools–and the beginning of tracking affluent and well-supported students into a  college preparatory track and other students into a vocational track.

Vocational education became career and technical education with the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act passed in 1984. In 1994, President Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act which promoted on-the-job experience combined with classroom instruction, leading to certification in marketable skills.

With a similar history of tracking vocational and college preparatory studies, Scandinavian and European schools began upgrading career education making it easier to move from careers to further and higher education. More recently in the US career education focused on robotics and advanced manufacturing has opened up lucrative learn and earn career ladders.

An increasing number of high schools are seeking work-based learning including schools in the CAPS Network. Ptech schools combine technical work experience, dual enrollment, and employment opportunities with corporate sponsors.

Standards-Based Reforms

Standards-based reform: high expectations for all students, annual standardized tests and school accountability. By the mid-1990s almost every one of the states had adopted standards and tests. This momentum for higher standards was launched (in part) by A Nation at Risk in 1983 and championed by corporate chiefs like IBM’s Lou Gerstner and State Farm’s Ed Rust and by southern governors like George Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Riley and Jim Hunt.

By the mid-90s nearly all states had standards that described what grads should know and be able to do (at least in core subjects). States added end-of-year tests linked to these standards to measure progress and to begin to address gaps.

This frame of standards and accountability, and a bipartisan commitment to more equitable education, resulted in a reauthorization of the federal elementary and secondary education act known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 when Rod Paige was secretary.

A dysfunctional Congress never fixed the flaws in NCLB or engaged in iterative development on its well-intentioned frame (like balancing the focus on proficiency with measures of growth). It was out of date in four years and by the time Duncan took office in 2009 it was seriously flawed.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a massive ($831 billion) attempt to address the Great Recession. It was passed a month after Obama and Duncan took office and included $45 billion for education to partially restore big 2008 cuts in state education. Duncan was successful in incorporating about $4.4 billion of incentive funding called Race to the Top. Three-quarters of states applied for the grant and made improvements in their plans, policies and laws in an effort to win a grant.

The bipartisan push for better and more equitable outcomes was well-intentioned, even inspiring. With weak execution, results never lived up to the hype but some residual benefits include higher standards, a commitment to equity, practice informed by data, and a recognition of the importance of good teaching.

However, the unintended consequences of the standards movement were numerous–a narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on test preparation, and a scripted approach to school that drove many talented educators out of the sector. The narrow focus on testing in compliance-oriented systems drove out creativity and collaboration rather than encouraging them.

School Models

In 1984, while chair of the education department at Brown, Ted Sizer published Horace’s Compromise and launched the Coalition of Essential Schools, a whole-school reform based on 10 design principles. From 14 founding schools, it quickly grew to over 600 member schools.

Launched in 1991, the nonprofit New American Schools Development Corporation funded 11 “break-the-mold” school models and help schools implement those designs. The competition launched what became the project-based EL Schools and America’s Choice, school improvement network.

The following year Chris Whittle launched Edison Schools and by the late 1990s, there were many voluntary and managed school networks–including New Tech Network, High Tech High and Big Picture Learning–that leveraged the benefits of personal technology to create high engagement learning environments.

Beginning in 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backed many successful school networks and sponsored the formation of many new ones leading to more than 1200 new secondary schools in the next decade.


Based on her 1989 Princeton University thesis, Wendy Kopp formed Teach for America to enlist talented undergraduates to teach in low-income schools. This bet on talent as the key to quality extended to other US nonprofits including New Leaders, TNTP and NCTQ. In 2009, the Gates Foundation made big investments in school districts around talent development–and six years later the districts were in disarray.

School Autonomy

First authorized in Minnesota in 1992, charter schools are independently operated public schools–a bet on appointed boards rather than the political leadership of school districts.

There are over 7,000 charter schools in the U.S. They have mixed performance, but those belonging to strong networks show substantially better than average performance. Most western countries have a form of charter schools and allow independent operators to provide public education services.

In the late 1990s, several urban superintendents in the US attempted decentralization but often found principals unprepared to handle the staffing and budget autonomy. Stephen Adamowski in Cincinnati and Tom Payzant in Boston developed system of earned autonomy where high-performing schools won autonomy.

In 2002, Joel Klein became chancellor in New York City. He decentralized budgets and pushed decision-making to schools. Low-performing schools were closed and replaced with hundreds of new small schools. Around the same time, Sir Michael Barber helped Prime Minister Tony Blair create governance reforms that pushed U.K. education budgets to the school level. While promising, school autonomy efforts produced mixed results.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is the current dominant meme in education. The term has been used since the 1960s but, building on developments in online and blended learning, became prevalent in the last five years. Stepping stones include Howard Gardner’s Frames of mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) and Carol Ann Tomlinson’s Differentiated Classroom (1999).

The leading advocate, iNACOL, says, “Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. Students have flexible learning environments, embedded within their communities, using a variety of modes, resources and modalities to accelerate learning. Personalized learning is about equity–ensuring every student has the same opportunities to succeed with differentiated resources and instruction that meet them where they are.”

In the broadest sense, personalized learning includes student moving at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery–this is often called competency-based or mastery-based learning. CompetencyWorks, a project of iNACOL, is the leading advocate.

The new school grant network Next Generation Learning Challenges calls blended, personalized and competency-based (not surprisingly) next-gen learning. Powerful learning is also flexible, engaging and relevant, challenging and supportive, informed and organized by progress. Next-gen learning embraces broader aims expressed by the MyWays outcome framework.

Next-gen learning embraces the best elements of prior reforms–student engagement, career and college readiness, coherent school models, and well-prepared and supported teaching.

As Tyack and Cuban note, “It’s easy to get caught up in our enthusiasms of the moment. But it’s worth recognizing that much of what we think of as “reform” (of whatever stripe) has plenty of backstory. After all, many of our frustrations are less novel and more familiar than we sometimes imagine.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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