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Education Reform

Reports Of Historical Significance

Reports compiled by individuals or commissions suggesting reforms for public education have appeared throughout America's postcolonial history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, committees and commissions of prominent individuals became popular for suggesting innovations to cure some educational ills. Since the 1983 release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's landmark report, A Nation at Risk, reform reports have peppered the landscape on a wide array of topics affecting K–12 and higher education. Most of the waves of reform since the 1980s have been spearheaded by a high-profile study of schooling containing a clarion call regarding the need for improvements. Indeed, reform-by-commission has become a mainstay in the arsenal of those hoping to change schools.

Those specifically examining the reform-by-commission process have come to a series of conclusions about these reports: (1) they have been around for a long time; (2) they tend to suggest changes in a very general manner; (3) they rarely attend to the significant issues in the implementation of reforms; and (4) their specific recommendation have had little direct impact on schools. That said, it is also clear that reform reports provide the rhetorical and symbolic context for reforms to be considered, as they denounce perceived problems and attempt to incite a sense of urgency demanding resolution.

Educational reform reports can be separated into three distinct periods. The first period, the period of early reform-report activity, includes the few reports generated in the United States up until the late nineteenth century. The second period, the era of Progressive reforms, roughly covers the late nineteenth century up until the 1980s. The final period, the era of the modern reform report, began in the early 1980s.

Early Reform-Report Activity

A number of reports of Prussian and French educational innovations heightened interest in improving America's schools. For example, the German professor Johann Friederich Herbart published a volume on the psychology of the art of teaching in 1831, while a Frenchman, Victor Cousin, published a report on the Prussian system of preparing teachers that was reprinted in English in 1835. The first U.S. educational reform reports were generally conducted by prominent individuals driven to foster the development of the nation's universal, free, public, and compulsory system of common schools. Leaders such as Henry Barnard of Connecticut, Calvin Stowe of Ohio, Caleb Mills of Indiana, Calvin Whiley of North Carolina, and John Pierce of Michigan advocated reforms for schools. Most significant among these were the reports of Horace Mann, the secretary of the State Board of Massachusetts in the late 1830s and 1840s. Mann's twelve annual reports covered a broad range of topics and decried the poor efficiency of the public schools. His reports analyzed topics including the moral purposes of schooling, the curriculum, libraries, pedagogical methods, the quality and training of teachers, discipline, school facilities, and church-state relations regarding public schools. Mann urged the standardization of the schools.

Toward the end of the early reform period, the analyses of Joseph M. Rice, the editor of Forum magazine, were published. Rice, a pediatrician who had studied pedagogy in Germany, visited hundreds of urban classrooms in thirty-six cities during the 1890s. He found the conditions and methods of instruction deplorable. Rice eventually designed a simple method of testing spelling to make more reliable evaluations and reported his findings in a series of articles appearing in Forum.

As the design and nature of schooling in the United States unfolded during the nineteenth century, reports emerged that depicted the condition of American education and offered various remedies for reform. The pace of reports about schools intensified as the country expanded west and the American population grew. This pattern was evident in the era of Progressive reforms.

Era of Progressive Reforms

From the 1890s until the 1980s a number of key education reports were published. These ranged from blue-ribbon commissions produced by elite educators and business persons to studies of schools prepared by prominent individual researchers. In this period the practice of conducting surveys of individual school districts was popularized. A 1940 textbook on educational history by John Russell and Charles Judd of the University of Chicago reported an astounding 3,022 educational surveys between 1910 and 1935. Supporters of this burgeoning examination of schools stressed the importance of using scientific techniques to inform policy.

Beginning in the 1890s the National Education Association (NEA), the leading professional education organization, produced a number of reports, the first and most notable being the 1893 report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies (chaired by Harvard president Charles Eliot), the Report of the Committee of Ten. The report identified the lack of uniformity in secondary programs and college admission requirements and sought to formulate curriculum and admissions requirements that would bring some harmony to secondary and higher education. Though scholars differ in their interpretation of the impact of this report's findings, the report did force high schools to work towards greater uniformity in curriculum.

In response to the tremendous growth in secondary school enrollment during the early decades of the twentieth century, the NEA established the Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which produced The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918. Published by the U.S. Department of Education, the document identified several means of preparing students for their duties as citizens, workers, and family members. The bulk of the report dealt with the goals of education in a democracy, the main objectives of education (seven were identified), and the role of secondary education in achieving these objectives. Key recommendations included compulsory schooling for at least eight hours a week until age eighteen and the creation of junior and senior high schools–with a comprehensive high school being one with a core curriculum, variables depending on vocation, and electives to accommodate special interests. The report reflected much of the thinking on education at the time, though its release during World War I no doubt affected its impact.

Other NEA-sponsored reports were released in the 1930s by the Commission on the Orientation of Secondary Education. Issues of Secondary Education (1936) and Functions of Secondary Education (1937) produced recommendations and key functions for secondary schools, including the idea of universal secondary school; curriculum beyond college preparatory, which was differentiated to meet specific needs; greater articulation between elementary and secondary schools; and, most controversially, that students should be eliminated from school once it was apparent that they would no longer benefit from being there.

Reports produced by the NEA-related Educational Policies Commission (EPC) included The Unique Functions of Education in American Democracy (1937) and The Purposes of Education in American Democracy (1938). In the first document, schooling was characterized as an institution that should be run by professionals with great academic freedom. Schools were to be run in a climate protective of democratic and scientific principles. The Purposes document amplified the key aims laid out in the Cardinal Principles. Some argued, however, that these recommendations were out of step with burgeoning issues related to the control of American youth.

The Progressive Education Association undertook several studies, the most prominent of which was the Eight-Year Study, the findings of which were released in 1942. This landmark evaluation project included twenty-nine secondary schools with Progressive curricula whose students were studied for eight years. Several colleges agreed to accept students from these programs who didn't meet usual entrance requirements. The evaluation matched 1,475 pairs of students from Progressive and conventional high schools across an array of variables in college. Much of the impact of the study was clearly blunted by its release during World War II, and although little remained of the programs in the Progressive schools years after the study, the evaluation design served as the model for studies for decades.

Toward the end of World War II, the EPC released Education for All American Youth (1944). Rereleased in 1952 to account for postwar changes, this report made suggestions for improving secondary education. At that time, more than half of all students never completed high school, yet the growing population and an increased faith in the power of schooling were swelling enrollments. Later in the 1950s, the Carnegie Corporation sponsored James Conant's The American High School Today, which involved visitations to fifty-five schools in eighteen states. Schools were evaluated, and it was determined that academically talented students were not being challenged. Key ingredients of successful schools were found to include strong school board members, superintendents, and principals; twenty-one specific recommendations for curriculum were included.

Probably the most significant report of the 1960s was the federally funded research study Equality of Educational Opportunity, published in 1966. Authored by James Coleman and associates, the report examined data from 600,000 students in 4,000 schools. The educational and socioeconomic backgrounds of students' families were found to be the most important variables explaining achievement, far outweighing the impact of school or teacher variables. These findings inspired several decades of debate, affecting a variety of school-related policies.

In the 1970s the Kettering Foundation created the National Commission on the Reform of Secondary Education, which worked on updating the Conant findings. Its 1973 report, The Reform of Secondary Education, focused primarily on alternatives to the traditional high school curriculum and a general definition for all American high schools.

Most of the reports in this period were driven by the push for scientific inquiry and the expanding role of schooling in American culture. In the early 1980s, highly visible reports underscored perceived problems and offered solutions for change.

Era of the Modern Reform Report

The 1980s became the decade of the reform report starting with the publication of Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal in 1982. With the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, the most widely acclaimed report of this genre, an unprecedented period of reform report activity began. It stated that a "rising tide of mediocrity" had overcome America's schools, and that if another nation had tried to impose such mediocrity on U.S. schools it would be considered "an act of war." Its many recommendations included strengthening the curriculum, lengthening the school day and the school year, paying teachers based on performance, and increasing homework. These recommendations were debated from statehouse to statehouse across the country. Though the recommendations may not have been followed exactly, the atmosphere for reform generated by the report ushered in a reform period unlike any other in the nation's history.

Other reports soon followed. In 1983 alone, major reports that were released included: Ernest Boyer's High School; the Business-Higher Education Forum's America's Competitive Challenge; the College Entrance Examination Board's Academic Preparation for College; John Goodlad's A Place Called School; the National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology's Educating Americans for the 21st Century; the Southern Regional Education Board's Meeting the Need for Quality Action in the South; the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth's Action for Excellence; and the Twentieth Century Fund's Making the Grade. In 1984 Theodore Sizer's influential Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School was published. Obviously, diverse entities focused on education, and no reforms could be promulgated without a commission-style report.

This reliance on reform reports continued unabated throughout the 1980s. Key areas for scrutiny included teacher education (A Nation Prepared [1986], Tomorrow's Teachers [1986]), educational administration (Leader's for America's Schools[1987]), improving school performance (Time for Results [1986]), and strengthening the economy through schooling (Investing in Our Children [1985], Children in Need [1987]). The pace of reform-report activity continued in the 1990s and the early part of the twenty-first century. Examples of such reports include government-sponsored documents, such as Does School Quality Matter, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families, and Prisoners of Time; reports from business groups, such as Investing in Teaching; and privately financed reports from think tanks and interest groups, such as The Teachers We Want and How to Get More of Them and The Essential Profession. It appears that any government agency or interest group wishing to propose a series of educational reforms often launch their initiative with a reform report. With the growth of the Internet and its ability to deliver information quickly and cheaply, reports continue to emerge and are readily available to anyone with access to a computer.


What can be said of reform reports across America's history? Clearly, such reports have been a mainstay of those interested in schools, though their use grew dramatically towards the latter part of the twentieth century. This history suggests that they will continue as a means of examining aspects of schooling and promoting particular solutions. Whether being merely symbolic or ceremonial in terms of creating a climate for considering change, or more directly functional in promoting specific policies into practice, they operate as a form of trickle-down reform, where some government agency or other body sets out policy recommendations for policymakers or those close to schools to consider. The policies that ultimately appear may not be as initially intended, but the reform reports help set the tone for the educational reform agenda that policymakers consider.


ADLER, MORTIMER J. 1982. The Paideia Proposal. New York: Macmillan.

BOYER, ERNEST L. 1983. High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America. New York: Harper and Row.

BUSINESS-HIGHER EDUCATION FORUM. 1983. America's Competitive Challenge: The Need for a National Response. Washington, DC: Business-Higher Education Forum.

CARD, DAVID, and KRUEGER, ALAN B. 1990. Does School Quality Matter? Returns to Education and the Characteristics of Public Schools in the United States. Washington, DC: Bureau of Economic Research.

CARNEGIE FORUM ON EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY, TASK FORCE ON TEACHING AS A PROFESSION. 1986. A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

CASWELL, HOLLIS L. 1929. City School Surveys. New York: Teachers College Press.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., et al. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMINATION BOARD. 1983. Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

COMMISSION ON THE REORGANIZATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1918. Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

COMMISSION ON THE REORIENTATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1936. Issues of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

COMMISSION ON THE REORIENTATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1937. Functions of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. 1985. Investing in Our Children. New York: Committee for Economic Development.

COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. 1987. Children in Need. New York: Committee for Economic Development.


CONANT, JAMES B. 1959. The American High School Today. New York: McGraw-Hill.

CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1957. The Republic and the School: Horace Mann On the Education of Free Men. New York: Teachers College Press.

DEAL, TERRY E. 1985. "National Commissions: Blueprints for Remodeling or Ceremonies for Revitalizing Public Schools?" Education and Urban Society 17:145–156.

EDUCATIONAL POLICIES COMMISSION. 1937. Unique Functions of Education in American Democracy. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

EDUCATIONAL POLICIES COMMISSION. 1938. The Purposes of Education in American Democracy. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

EDUCATIONAL POLICIES COMMISSION. 1944. Education for All American Youth. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

EDUCATIONAL POLICIES COMMISSION. 1952. Education for All American Youth: A Further Look. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

FORDHAM FOUNDATION. 1999. The Teachers We Want and How to Get More of Them. Washington, DC: Fordham Foundation.

GINSBERG, RICK, and PLANK, DAVID N., eds. 1995. Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger.

GINSBERG, RICK, and WIMPELBERG, ROBERT K. 1987. "Educational Change by Commission: Attempting 'Trickle-Down' Reform." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 10:344–360.

GINSBERG, RICK, and WIMPELBERG, ROBERT. 1988. "An Assessment of Twentieth Century Commission Reports on Educational Reform." In Social Goals and Educational Reform, ed. C. V. Willie and I. Miller. New York: Greenwood Press.

GOODLAD, JOHN I. 1983. A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future. St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill.

HASELKORN, DAVID, and HARRIS, LOUIS. 1998. The Essential Profession. Belmont, MA: Recruiting New Teachers.

HOLMES GROUP. 1986. Tomorrow's Teachers. East Lansing, MI: Holmes Group.

KRUG, EDWARD A. 1964. The Shaping of the American High School, 1880–1920, Vol. 1. New York: Praeger.

KRUG, EDWARD A. 1972. The Shaping of the American High School, 1920–1941, Vol. 2. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

MURPHY, JOSEPH, ed. 1990. The Educational Reform Movement of the 1980s. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF BUSINESS. 2001. Investing in Teaching. Washington, DC: National Alliance of Business.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON CHILDREN. 1991. Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families. Washington, DC: National Commission on Children.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION. 1987. Leaders for Tomorrow's Schools. Tempe, AZ: University Council on Educational Administration.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON THE REFORM OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1973. The Reform of Secondary Education: A Report to the Public and the Profession. New York: McGraw-Hill.

NATIONAL EDUCATION COMMISSION ON TIME AND LEARNING. 1994. Prisoners of Time. Washington, DC: National Commission on Time and Learning.

NATIONAL GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION. 1986. Time for Results: The Governors' 1991 Report on Education. Washington, DC: National Governors Association.

NATIONAL SCIENCE BOARD COMMISSION ON PRECOLLEGE EDUCATION IN MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. 1983. Educating Americans for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

PASSOW, HARRY. 1984. Reforming Schools in the 1980s: A Critical Review of the National Reports. New York: Teachers College Press.

PASSOW, HARRY A. 1984. "Tackling the Reform Reports of the 1980s." Phi Delta Kappan 65:674–683.

PETERSON, PAUL E. 1983. "Did the Educational Commissions Say Anything?" Brookings Review 1:3–11.

PLANK, DAVID N., and GINSBERG, RICK. 1990. "Catch the Wave: Reform Commissions and School Reform." In The Educational Reform Movement of the 1980s, ed. J. Murphy. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 1942. The Eight Year Study. Washington, DC: Progressive Education Association.

RUSSELL, JOHN D., and JUDD, CHARLES H. 1940. The American Educational System. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

SIZER, THEODORE. 1984. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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TYACK, DAVID B.; KIRST, MICHAEL; and HANSOT, ELIZABETH. 1980. "Educational Reform: Retrospect and Prospect." Teachers College Record 81:253–269.

WIMPELBERG, ROBERT K., and GINSBERG, RICK. 1988. "The National Commission Approach to Educational Reform." In The Politics of Education Yearbook, ed. R. Crowson and J. Hannaway. London: Falmer.


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