“History doesn’t teach lessons, historians do.” Because historians interpret the past they often disagree, even revise, the meaning of events from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to school reform.
What historians can do is show that in the flow of time constant change occurs. As a wise ancient Greek said: you cannot step into the same river twice. Thus, the past differs from the present even when they seem so similar. Consider, for example, U.S. involvement in Vietnam a half-century ago and Afghanistan since 2001. Or “scientific management” dominating school reformers’ vocabulary and action in the early 1900s and the audit culture of test-driven accountability pervasive a century later. Historians can show the complexity of human action in the past and offer alternative perspectives that can inform current policy making but they cannot give policymakers specific guidelines. Although some try.
With that in mind, I turn to the current conventional wisdom among school reformers that focusing on the state and district are the best units for engineering change in schools and classrooms. In examining past generations of school reformers, however, it becomes clear that where change must occur has shifted time and again from the smallest unit-the teacher in the classroom-to the school, the district, the state, and nation. As political, economic, and social changes occurred in the U.S., previous generations of reformers skipped back and forth among these units of change as to which would best produce the changes they sought.
For example, in the early 1900s, few, if any, school reformers thought of the state or nation as the unit of reform. They saw the district and individual school as appropriate levers for change. A century later, however, with No Child Left Behind, test-driven accountability rules, Race to The Top incentive funds, and Common Core standards in math and reading adopted by nearly all the states- many policymakers see both the state and nation as the dominant units for reforming schools.