A Historical Take on Education Reform

In 1892, the Committee of Ten, organized by the NEA, met to make recommendations for the future direction of education. Their recommendations included 12 years of education for all students regardless of future education plans or career and the inclusion of English and mathematics in every academic year. This group also came to the conclusion that content-specific groups should meet to determine the limits, the best methods of instruction, the allotment of time, and best methods of testing students in each subject. To guide these subgroups, the committee outlined Seven Cardinal Principles to serve as guides for decisions made on these areas.

            The goals and recommendations of the Committee of Ten can be seen as politically pluralistic. On one hand, they called for the standardization of the curriculum to meet the needs of colleges and universities. By standardizing what was required of students at the secondary level, regardless of whether they planned to attend college or to follow a vocational path, the Committee of Ten made it clear that it was important for all students to have 12 years of education, with exposure to certain content areas. This move to standardize elementary and secondary education, which has been historically associated with conservative political positions, was necessary to make college available to more students.

            On the other hand, the Committee’s Seven Cardinal Principles made a clear statement that the student should be given more consideration in the curriculum. During the early 20th Century, education was criticized for being too subject-centric. By focusing on the needs of students rather than on college preparatory pressures, the Committee of Ten provided a thrust for a more progressive, student-centered education. This progressive stance, associated with more politically liberal positions, was necessary to attract more students to the sciences and make the curriculum more relevant to societal needs.

            This tension between standardization and student-centered approaches in education, particularly in science education, has continued throughout the 20th Century to the present. This is particularly clear when you look at the current standards movement and the concurrent call to bring more students into STEM fields. Arguments for standardization have included the need to ensure high-quality education for all students to address concerns about the widening achievement gap. This push for standardization of the curriculum is exemplified in NCLB policy, which has cited evidence of differences in achievement among different socio-economic groups.

            At the same time, in order to increase success in science courses and attract more students into STEM fields, education and learning scientists have acknowledged the need for student-centered approaches to learning. Much of the criticism in this area is directed towards the superficial learning of science content, based on memorization of facts and principles. Research on science learning indicates that robust learning of science requires more than simple memorization.

            The plurality in these approaches (standardization and student-centered) arises from differing views of the goals of education. While these goals are different, I do not believe they are not in conflict with one another, as is usually assumed. Rather, they differ because their goals address different organizational levels in the education system. The standardization view seeks to provide all students with a common level of education for the purpose of passing along relevant knowledge necessary for subsequent education in the disciplines (i.e. college) and ensure equity in educational opportunity. This view attempts to address goals at the institutional level (schools, districts, etc.) of education. The student-centered view tries to provide educational experiences to individual students that are relevant to their lives while providing a thorough grounding in the principles of the discipline. Underlying this view is the goal of providing an education that meets the needs of individuals in the society.

While these two views have different underlying assumptions about the goals of education based on the organizational level of interest (institutional or individual), I do not think that we should simply reject one in favor of another. Yet, as reform movements have come and gone, we see a tension between these views and the resulting “pendulum swings” of reform.

In order to get beyond the cycling of educational ideas, I believe that educational researchers must do a better job of providing evidence for curricular decisions at both the institutional and individual level. We must consider how these decisions affect both the institution and the individual. I think that we will find that the goals of educational equality and student-centered instruction are not in conflict with one another, but are actually concurrent goals that must be addressed. These levels of analysis are inextricably linked; the structures of our educational institutions influence the individual educational experiences of students. Determining how these levels interact with one another should be an area of exploration for educational researchers.