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Ralph W. Tyler (1902–1994)

Contribution to Testing and Curriculum Development, Advisory Role

Ralph W. Tyler's long and illustrious career in education resulted in major contributions to the policy and practice of American schooling. His influence was especially felt in the field of testing, where he transformed the idea of measurement into a grander concept that he called evaluation; in the field of curriculum, where he designed a rationale for curriculum planning that still has vitality today; and in the realm of educational policy, where he advised U.S. presidents, legislators, and various school leaders on new directions and improvements for public schooling.

After starting his career in education as a science teacher in South Dakota, Tyler went to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in educational psychology. His training with Charles Judd and W.W. Charters at Chicago led to a research focus on teaching and testing. Upon graduation in 1927, Tyler took an appointment at the University of North Carolina, where he worked with teachers in the state on improving curricula. In 1929 Tyler followed W. W. Charters to the Ohio State University (OSU). He joined a team of scholars directed by Charters at the university's Bureau of Educational Research, taking the position of director of accomplishment testing in the bureau. He was hired to assist OSU faculty with the task of improving their teaching and increasing student retention at the university. In this capacity, he designed a number of path-breaking service studies. He made a name for himself at OSU by showing the faculty how to generate evidence that spoke to their course objectives. In this context, Tyler first coined the term evaluation as it pertained to schooling, describing a testing construct that moved away from pencil and paper memorization examinations and toward an evidence collection process dedicated to overarching teaching and learning objectives. Because of his early insistence on looking at evaluation as a matter of evidence tied to fundamental school purposes, Tyler could very well be considered one of the first proponents of what is now popularly known as portfolio assessment.

Contribution to Testing and Curriculum Development

The years Tyler spent at OSU clearly shaped the trajectory of his career in testing and curriculum development. His OSU ties brought him into the company of the Progressive Education Association and its effort to design a project dedicated to the reexamination of course requirements in American high schools. Known as the Eight-Year Study, the project involved thirty secondary schools that agreed to experiment with various alternative curricula approaches. The purpose of the study was to help colleges and high schools better understand the effects of the high school experience on college performance and other post—high school events. Tyler was chosen as the director of evaluation for the study, recommended for the job by Boyd Bode, who witnessed Tyler's work with faculty at OSU. Tyler designed methods of evaluation particular to the experimental variables of the Eight-Year Study. The details of this work are captured in Tyler and Smith's 1942 book on the evaluative component of the Eight-Year Study. The finding of the Eight-Year Study threw into question the tradition of supporting only one set of high school experiences for success in college and opened the door for more alternative thinking about the secondary school curriculum.

For Tyler, the Eight-Year Study not only provided a venue for his creative perspective on evaluation but it also forced him to think about a rationale for the school curriculum. Answering a call from the participating schools in the study for more curriculum assistance, Tyler designed a curriculum planning rationale for the participating schools. After moving to the University of Chicago in 1938 to take the position of chairman in the Department of Education, Tyler continued to cultivate his ideas on the rationale, using it in a syllabus for his course on curriculum and instruction and eventually publishing it in 1949, under the title Basic Principles of Curriculumand Instruction. In the rationale, Tyler conceived of school action as moving across a continuum of concerns that speaks to school purposes, the organization of experiences and the evaluation of experiences. His basic questions are now famous:

  1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
  4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?

The rationale also highlighted an important set of factors to be weighed against the questions. Tyler believed that the structure of the school curriculum also had to be responsive to three central factors that represent the main elements of an educative experience: (1) the nature of the learner (developmental factors, learner interests and needs, life experiences, etc.); (2) the values and aims of society (democratizing principles, values and attitudes); and (3) knowledge of subject matter (what is believed to be worthy and usable knowledge). In answering the four questions and in designing school experience for children, curriculum developers had to screen their judgments through the three factors.

Tyler's rationale has been criticized for being overtly managerial and linear in its position on the school curriculum. Some critics have characterized it as outdated and atheoretical, suitable only to administrators keen on controlling the school curriculum in ways that are unresponsive to teachers and learners. The most well-known criticism of the rationale makes the argument that the rationale is historically wedded to social efficiency traditions. Tyler offered no substantive response to these criticisms, believing that criticism of his curriculum development work required some discussion of an alternative, which none of the critics provided.

Tyler's reputation as an education expert grew with the publication of Basic Principles of Curriculumand Instruction. Because of the value Tyler placed on linking objectives to experience (instruction) and evaluation, he became known as the father of behavioral objectives. This led many to again characterize his work in the tradition of the social efficiency expert aiming to atomize the curriculum with hyper-specific objectives. Tyler, however, claimed no allegiance to such thinking. To him, behavioral objectives had to be formed at a generalizable level, an idea he first learned in graduate school under Charles Judd, whose research focused on the role of generalization in the transfer of learning. And although Tyler understood that schooling was a normative enterprise, he showed great regard for the exercise of local prerogatives in the school and cited a concern for "children who differ from the norm" as an educational problem needing attention.

Advisory Role

Tyler also exercised enormous influence as an educational adviser. Rising to the position of Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, Tyler assisted Robert Hutchins in restructuring the university's curriculum in the late 1940s and in founding the university's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. During this time Tyler also started his career as an education adviser in the White House. In 1952 he offered U.S. President Harry Truman advice on reforming the curriculum at the service academies. Under Eisenhower, he chaired the President's Conference on Children and Youth. President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration used Tyler to help shape its education bills, most notably the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, in which he was given the responsibility of writing the section on the development of regional educational research laboratories. In the late 1960s Tyler took on the job of designing the assessment measures for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which are federally mandated criterion-reference tests used to gauge national achievement in various disciplines and skill domains.

After leaving the University of Chicago in 1953, Tyler became the first director of the Advanced Center for Behavioral Science at Stanford University, a think tank for social scientists that Tyler founded with private monies. He formally retired in 1967, taking on the position of director emeritus and trustee to the center and itinerant educational consultant.

Given the longevity of his career in education and wide-ranging influence of his work in the policy and practice of public education, especially in the realm of curriculum development and testing, Tyler could very well be seen as among the most influential of figures setting the course for the American public school during the second half of the twentieth century.


HLEBOWITSH, PETER S. 1992. "Amid Behavioural and Behaviouralistic Objectives: Reappraising Appraisals of the Tyler Rationale." Journal of Curriculum Studies 24 (6):553–547.

KIESTER, E. 1978. "Ralph Tyler: The Educator's Educator." Change 10 (2):28–35.

KLIEBARD, HERBERT. 1970. "The Tyler Rationale." School Review 78 (2):259–272.

PINAR, WILLIAM F. 1978. "Notes on the Curriculum Field." Educational Researcher 7 (8):5–12.

RIDINGS-NOWAKOWSKI, JERI. 1981. "An Interview with Ralph Tyler." In Educational Evaluation: Classic Works of Ralph Tyler, eds. George F. Madaus and Daniel L. Stufflebeam. Boston: Kluwer.

TANNER, DANIEL, and TANNER, LAURA. 1979. Emancipation from Research: The Reconceptualist Perspective." Educational Researcher 8 (6):8–12.

TYLER, RALPH W. 1949. Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

TYLER, RALPH W. 1966. "The Objectives and Plans for a National Assessment of Educational Progress." Journal of Educational Measurement 3 (spring):1–4.

TYLER, RALPH W. 1968. The Challenge of National Assessment. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

TYLER RALPH W., and SMITH, EUGENE R. 1942. Appraising and Recording Student Progress, Vol. 3, Adventure in American Education. New York: Harper.

TYLER, RALPH W., et. al. 1932. Service Studies in Higher Education. Columbus: Bureau of Educational Research, Ohio State University.


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