Patricia Albjerg Graham

Charles Warren Professor of the History of Education Emerita
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University 

I am responding to Mike’s letter inviting us to give examples of research that had an impact on practice/policy with explanation for why this was so.

I want to cite several studies that were taken by the public to point to the same thing:

Schools need not insist that all students learn traditional academic material. 

  • Eight Year Study (also called Thirty Schools Study) funded largely by the General Education Board plus Carnegie Corporation (I believe) in the late 1930s and early 1940s that tracked academic performance of graduates of “progressive education curricula” high school schools and those of traditional curriculum high schools and compared their academic performance in selective colleges. Ralph Tyler was the lead researcher along with Wilford Aikin, who edited the volumes describing the study. The finding was that the progressive education graduates did at least as well as the traditional graduates. The erroneous conclusion was “curriculum did not make a difference” in college preparation, and the more erroneous conclusion was that we need not bother with academic content in the curriculum. This finding came at a time of dramatic increase in the percentage of adolescents attending and completing high school (nearly fifty percent of the age group), many of whom in the eyes of the educators did not seem capable of college preparatory work. Several years later (1944) this led to the introduction by the US Office of Education and the National Education Association of the “Life Adjustment Curriculum” that determined that only 20% of the high school students needed an academic curriculum. The next 20% might benefit from a vocational curriculum, and the remaining 60% from a “life adjustment” curriculum, which would include such courses as “marriage and the family” and other “life skill” courses. The effect of these changes led to a significant diminution of traditional academic content in school curriculum, particularly in the high schools, which made it easier to retain adolescents uninterested in academic learning through high school. This conviction has persisted until well into the 1980s, strengthened by other educational research as cited below.  
  • Lawrence A. Cremin’s Carnegie Corporation supported historical work on American education, including his trilogy published primarily in the 1970s plus final work, Popular Education and its Discontents, (1990) assert repeatedly and correctly that “there are many agencies that educate.” The erroneous policy conclusion taken from these works is that “schooling does not matter” since there are so many other educational forces in a child’s life, e.g. family, community, religion, media etc. Analytically Cremin was exactly right, but the actions taken from this conclusion, particularly by elite universities in dismantling their schools of education (Yale, Duke), considering it (Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago) or eliminating their teacher training programs, often termed MAT”s (Yale, Duke, Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, John Hopkins, Wesleyan) resulted in diminishing the opportunities for preparation of practice and research about schooling, in particular, and education, in general, in some of the places with significant numbers of talented potential educators. Elite educational researchers increasingly sought refuge in disciplinary purity, particularly methodologically, and avoided messy investigations of school practice.  
  • Cremin’s work appeared at the same time as James S. Coleman’s The Adolescent Society, which left the impression that the impact of the society was much more significant to the adolescent than schooling. Undoubtedly this was true for many, but the conclusion that many drew, including occasionally Coleman, was that schooling was not important, and perhaps it would be better to put these kids to work in an adult work force where different and presumably better values would be learned and adopted. Leaving school to work at 14 might be preferable than continuing in the toxic adolescent culture. The consequence for many middle class youth has been to go to work as adolescents with their parents’ support though not leaving school officially. Thus, they withdraw from the values of deferred gratification that schooling often requires and substitute instant gratification of the paycheck to be spent on immediate luxuries (electronics, cars, fancy clothes, etc.).  
  • Coincident with Cremin and Coleman’s work diminishing the significance of schooling came Christopher Jencks et al,Inequality (1972), originally entitled by Jencks “The Limits of Schooling.” The public understood this study, as well, to mean that “schooling doesn’t make a difference” though in this case the alleged finding applied to changes in the socio-economic structure. Clearly school performance alone was not as important as family wealth, as Coleman and most other sociologists who had looked at the issue recognized, in predicting subsequent economic prosperity. Yet again this finding was taken to diminish the importance of schooling in the society, essentially making the case that if schooling does not bring about beneficial changes for all, we can ignore it.  
  • Finally, the evaluations that have become standard in social science and education in the last forty years have given us the illusion that we understand the effects of the program under review. Yet the evaluations conducted under the stringent rigor of social science attempt to answer questions about programmatic effectiveness by following the canons of research design laid down by the more quantitative brethren in economics and sociology. Much can be learned from these efforts, particularly such issues as whether the program reaches the target group or whether that group does better on certain subsequent measures than similarly situated groups who did not receive the “treatment.” That is valuable information, but it is not enough. What we need from the evaluations is not only the data they now provide in answering the “whether” question (did it work or not?) but more importantly the “why” question (what were the essential elements that were responsible for the success or failure of the program?). The first major evaluation of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, completed by National Institute of Education researchers Paul Hill et al in 1978, answered the questions of whether the funds reached the targets fine, but waffled on the fundamental issue of children’s learning (increased or not) on the basis of the intervention. Their provocative conclusion was that in “well-managed” programs significant increases in reading and arithmetic learning occurred. But what constituted “well-managed’?  

My conclusion from these examples is that in the era of metrics in which we live, we need better ones for the issues most important to us. Most of the metrics we currently use measure what can be relatively easily measured but which may not be the most important elements in understanding the issues, particularly ones of educational practice. We use the metrics we have for the research designs we trust, but for measuring issues of practice, particularly children’s propensities either to learn academic material in school or to develop characteristics we value of integrity, hard work, respect or ingenuity, we need better and different metrics.

Issues of schooling on which I have focused seem to me to illustrate this paradox. We have found all sorts of ways to illustrate in variously rigorous ways why schooling is not as important as other formative influences on youth. Underlying such assumptions must be the very human recognition that schooling for those uninterested in it is an extremely challenging activity. Adults who are given responsibility for guiding recalcitrant youngsters through this now very lengthy process consistently seek solace for their failures by minimizing its influence in children’s lives. Traditionally educators have believed that most students could not perform adequately academically (introduction of vocational ed for non-academic students in early years of 20th century, “tracking” throughout most of 20th century, the life adjustment curriculum, educators’ antipathy to GI Bill initially believing that most veterans could not do college work). Educational researchers in major research universities attempting to explore their topics in an environment of intense criticism of schooling by their professorial colleagues in the arts and sciences understandably sought investigations that would satisfy their academic colleagues’ concerns, seeking colleagueship with them professionally rather than with teachers and school administrators. Not surprisingly, the leading educational research during the past half century has failed to focus upon issues of insuring academic achievement for all through schooling, the present public mantra, and has instead concentrated upon issues of greater public concern in those decades, e.g. educational policies re desegregation, bi-lingualism, disabilities, poverty. Present circumstances, however, challenge these priorities. New research needs to explore the realities of educational practice, how it works and why it works the way it does, more deeply.