Interview: Paul E. Peterson, schools historian | HistoryNet MENU

Interview: Paul E. Peterson, schools historian

By Michael Corcoran
1/4/2018 • American History Magazine

In Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning (Harvard University Press, 2010), Harvard’s Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Paul E. Peterson, follows the rise, decline and potential salvation of America’s once peerless public schools.

Why did public education become ubiquitous in 19th-century America?

Mainly because the U.S. was decentralized, so people with different belief systems could move forward. In Europe they had a huge fight over secondary education, but we just marched ahead. Every little place had a high school, and if you didn’t it was an embarrassment.

How important was religion to education in those early days?

Schools have always been built by missionaries, because in order to keep religious traditions alive you had to read. Education took off when it was coupled with belief systems that required people to read.

When did public schools begin to shift toward centralization?

When Horace Mann became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. Mann traveled to Europe and saw the Prussians were using public schools to unify the German people. That influenced his three major objectives: the collection of statistics, the development of texts that were not dominated by orthodox religious beliefs, and the establishment of so-called normal schools to train teachers. His goals required state governments to become involved. Ever since, reformers have always looked to get a higher level of government involved in education.

What kept centralization rolling?

The philosopher and psychologist John Dewey came along and preached a system that catered to individual rather than rote learning. He pushed to shift power from the local to the state level and place it in the hands of education professionals. The number of local school boards was greatly reduced in the 1930s and ’40s, eliminating the little red school house. Schools became bigger and bigger and, consequently, created bigger school boards that were more involved in hiring than running schools. Teaching jobs were no longer a matter of patronage. Teachers now had to have degrees from a normal school and be licensed and certified, and they were given tenure to protect them from political influence. The state’s role as a funding mechanism also increased.

How did the civil rights movement push the development of the system?

Progressive educators never faced up to the race issue. That came from the outside—Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, Brown v. Board of Education. The degree of segregation in schools today really hasn’t changed much since 1972. However, Brown and other court decisions opened the door to many other groups and individuals to claim rights. Students now had the right to speak freely and the right to due process if they were suspended. They also had the right to be taught in their own language, and disabled children were mainstreamed into the schools. This all created additional challenges for schools.

How were teachers affected?

Things changed dramatically after teachers joined a protest of racial segregation on buses in Montgomery, Ala. Before that, it was inconceivable for public servants to mount an organized action against government authority. When Calvin Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, he fired everyone who participated in the 1919 Boston police strike. Nearly two decades later, when Franklin D.Roosevelt was president, he made it clear that government workers could not strike and had no right to collective bargaining, period. But the civil rights movement gave teacher unions an opening, and union leader Albert Shanker soon began to demand and win the right of collective bargaining for teachers. Now the innovations the progressives put in place became goals for bargaining.

What was the next turn of the wheel for school reform?

The publication in 1982 of Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, the findings of a national commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan. The report revealed, in short, that students nationwide were not being very well served, and it sparked a movement we’re still part of today: demanding that schools be held accountable.

How has that played out?

Everybody wanted to customize education to meet the specific needs of every individual. But that created an elaborate regulated system that is almost the antithesis of custom. Nobody planned that. It was an accident of a struggle for political power that led to state and federal officials getting more involved in overseeing public schools.

Where does that leave teachers today?

Many teachers feel like they don’t have control of their own classroom, and can’t gain it because they can’t comply with various rules and regulations, so they sort of give up. And with accountability, you can’t give up, you have to do it, so teachers feel trapped. Young people with noble ideas become teachers and become quite cynical in a short time, or leave because they get very frustrated.

Can the school system achieve true customization?

Technology has created extraordinary leaps in how we process information. Today we can teach to each kid’s price point, so to speak. In Florida, schools now receive funds for each class a student takes rather than a lump sum per student. So if you’re a kid, and you find your biology teacher ineffective, you take the class online from an outside provider. That provider gets the funds for that class. If online education becomes as good as I think it can, brick-and-mortar teachers will become more like coaches.

What will it take for this virtual approach to catch on?

There will need to be a commitment at the state level to allow funds to go to whichever provider is offering the online courses. The driving force is going to be the change in higher education. Once changes are recognized there, they won’t seem too strange. Middlebury College, for example, which prides itself on its language programs, has just announced it will be offering those classes online.

What about early education?

Some people think the best way is to start with very young kids. I think the smarter path is to address obviously broken high schools, where the dropout rate is high and the need for change greater. The college model will be readily adapted to high school, and the most talented young people will gravitate toward it and drive change.

How does this model differ from other attempts at reform?

It’s a matter of association. Charter schools, for example, are effective in reaching disadvantaged kids, but have not caught on because people associate the concept with welfare. By contrast, an idea that gets adopted first by the elites tends to spread. It’s the most resourceful who adopt and adapt first—just think of any new product in the marketplace. I think that’s what distinguishes virtual learning and makes it more likely to take hold. When I speak to groups, some like this idea and some don’t, but no one disagrees that it is coming.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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