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Educational policy analysis archives
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Educational policy analysis archives.
n Vol. 8, no. 2 (January 02, 2000).
Tempe, Ariz. :
b Arizona State University ;
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida.
c January 02, 2000
Includes EPAA Commentary.
America Y2K : the obsolescence of educational reforms / Sherman Dorn.
x Research
v Periodicals.
2 710
Arizona State University.
University of South Florida.
1 773
t Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA)
4 856


1 of 9 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 8 Number 2January 2, 2000ISSN 1068-2341 A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal Editor: Gene V Glass, College of Education Arizona State University Copyright 2000, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES. Permission is hereby granted to copy any article if EPAA is credited and copies are not sold. Articles appearing in EPAA are abstracted in the Current Index to Journals in Education by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation and are permanently archived in Resources in Education America Y2K: The Obsolescence of Educational Reforms Sherman Dorn University of South FloridaAbstract The passing of the deadline for fulfillment of the national education goals in the United States (the beginning of 2000) reflects the frequently hyperbolic statements of objectives and the manic p ace of school reform efforts over the past two decades. The domination b y schools of child and family life has combined with a longstanding re liance on schools to solve social problems to make school reform a polit ically opportune as well as visible issue. Thus, even if the phrasing o f national education goals in the U.S. changes to reflect the passing of the nominal deadline, those pressures will remain. Yesterday, observers of educational refor m in the United States woke up to the policy equivalent of the Y2K problem: what does a n ation do when a set of official goals has become obsolete with the passage of time? A sum mit of the nation's governors and then-President George Bush in 1989 declared the fir st six national education goals as part of an "America 2000" strategy for highlighting key targets. (See the National Education Goals Panel website for more information.). By the year 2000 ," each of the (now) eight goals has asserted, the nation would ha ve kindergartners ready to learn, 90 percent graduation, solid academic achievement (inc luding "first in the world" achievement in science and math), a literate adult population, safe and drug-free schools,


2 of 9superb professional development for teachers, and c ommitted parental involvement in schools. As those who are reading this article on c omputers (Y2K-compliant or not) can attest, we have reached the deadline for every goal Yet we have apparently not reached the goals. Overall, of the 28 key indicators chosen by the National Education Goals Panel, 16 have shown either no improvement or decli nes. The most concrete goal, 90 percent graduation, was within striking distance in 1990 but has eluded our collective grasp: 86 percent of 18-24 year olds had high schoo l diplomas or alternative credentials in 1990, while 85 percent had done so in 1998 (Nati onal Education Goals Panel,1999). Faced with the nominal obsolescence of specific nat ional education goals in the U. S., perhaps we should rename the America 2000 strategy the America Y2K problem, for the goals self-destructed at midnight. Curiously enough, the general conclusion of the most recent report of the National Education Goals Panel entirely eschews matters of o utcomes: We believe that the National Education Goals have m oved America forward and, on balance, encouraged greater progress in edu cation. We are clearer about what appropriate Goals are and how to measure progress toward them at the national and state levels. There is no doubt that the National Education Goals have encouraged a broad spectrum of educators, parents, students, business and community leaders, policymak ers, and the public to work toward their attainment. Reporting progress to ward the Goals has provided valuable information to states and inspire d them to reach higher. Can we do better? Of course we can. But we are conv inced that our gains have been greater because we have had National Educ ation Goals to guide our efforts. Ten years of progress have shown us th at the Goals are working. (National Education Goals Panel, 1999, p. 6) The singular discussion of process above seems to c ontradict the whole notion of evaluating policy using concrete outcomes. One may wonder whether such a conclusion constitutes denial. After all, with substantial evi dence that a national effort to reform education has not met its putative goals, is such a paragraph mere hedging in the face of the panel's own data? I believe such a criticism is unfair, for two reasons. First, one should measure a policy discussion not only by the realities one can observe on the ground but also in the agenda it sets for the futur e. Whether one agrees with the specific goals or the notion of a national education agenda, the summit in 1989 did help frame the policy debate that has ensued. Second, the dead line itself was primarily an instrument of political rhetoric, in the eyes of it s creators a useful goad for change. The focus on process in the report is a pedestrian rath er than a weighty irony, in this instance. The more substantive criticism of federal policy sh ould aim at the content and means of reform. Still, the deadline reflects what the res t of the world often sees as prototypically optimistic boasting of the United States. Such opti mism has some side effects, as Potter (1954) described almost half a century ago. We in t he U.S. often feel pressured by the assumption of affluence to individual and collectiv e acts of hype and disappointment. The New Year (whether one believes we are in a new millennium yet or not) should prompt some reflection on the workings of such an a pproach to social change. The failure to meet the national education goals was th e result of a common dynamic in school reform. The problem with the national educat ion goals was not that they set virtually unreachable goals but that they were not unusual in attempting to push change by setting impossible standards.


3 of 9 A brief survey of recent educational refo rm efforts in almost any city or state illustrates the impatience in modern reform dynamic s. Chicago witnessed first the radical decentralization of control over schools in the 1988 reform legislation and then recentralization in the hands of Mayor Richard Dale y in the years since 1995. Florida and California are two examples of rapid-fire refor ms at the state level. In the last quarter-century, Florida schools have been the targ et of minimum competency tests, increased seat-time requirements for graduation, ma ndatory standardized testing for students, teacher competency tests, the removal of state mandates for universal standardized tests and their replacement with partl y performance-based testing in several (but not all) grades, site-based management of scho ols, alternative credentialing procedures for teachers, the reinstallation of both criterionand norm-referenced testing in the majority of grades, the public grading of sc hools on an A-F basis, and vouchers. California schools have witnessed many of these eff orts as well as an aborted experiment in performance-based assessment for the whole state and a highly politicized battle over methods of teaching reading. Larry Cuban argued that much of the educa tional reform dynamic begins with the unreasonable demands we have placed on schools to a ccomplish social reform in the U.S (Cuban, 1990). Historians can trace back almost two hundred years a chain of statements assuming the power of formal schooling t o eliminate or ameliorate poverty, and the first legal decrees requiring education in British North America (albeit mandating family rather than formal schooling) were to promote morality in the seventeenth century. To the extent that we keep exp ecting schools to solve all our social problems, we are overestimating their power. Cuban' s argument about how social reformers have used schools to avoid resolving broa der political conflicts helps explain much of the rhetoric of school reform over the past twenty years. A Nation at Risk (1983) blamed schools for economic woes in the mids t of a broad trend towards deindustrialization that we now call "economic glob alization" (Harrison & Bluestone, 1988; National Commission on Excellence in Educatio n, 1983; The Nation (Dec. 6, 1999 issue) ). The protesters at the Seattle meeting of the Wor ld Trade Organization argued that key politicians around the world were h iding the social dislocation and other problems of international capital liquidity behind the platitudes of free trade. In the meantime, one of the alleged bromides for such disl ocation in the United States has been, predictably, educational reform. Certainly no one could argue with "world-class" achievement for any child. But are there any worldclass standards for family subsistence (on which, not incidentally, one must base a poor c hild's education)? One must acknowledge, however, that the r hetoric of school reform is not merely a shadow-game. It has such political power because it resonates at some level with parents' and other citizens' experiences. Parents m ay not know much about the debates over globalization, but most want their children to be able to get and keep jobs as adults, and they may well perceive the quality of an educat ion, or at least an educational credential, as important to that goal. Some of thos e parents and their neighbors purchased their homes in part on the reputation of local schools. In addition, parents do not have the luxury of waiting five to ten years fo r deeper school reform to affect their children; in the life of a child and her family, a year is a very long time. Part of this impatience with and targetin g of schools also comes from the expansion of schools' role within the daily routine s of families. One hundred years ago, formal schooling was one of many ways that a child spent time. Far more seventeen-year-olds worked than studied in high sch ools. Even for younger children, attendance was sparse compared to the present. (Tha t some children are regularly truant in contemporary schools is an exception that proves the rule; a century ago, attendance


4 of 9was less regular for most students.) Today, by cont rast, children's and parents' lives in the United States revolve around the school schedul e. Schooling has become an institution that dominates time and consciousness, affecting our assumptions about what is important. One response to such dominating organ izations is to target those key institutions for inspection, concern, and responsib ility for solving broader problems. Thus, voters are willing to credit politicians with concern about schools, apparently legitimating expectatins that no school reform effo rt could meet. Many observers have commented on the prac tical problems of trying to reform schools dramatically in a short time Sarason, 1990; Tyack and Cuban, 1995), and I do not wish to revisit those issues here. Rather, my a ssertion is that several factors, some longstanding in North American culture and others m ore recent, have encouraged and helped legitimate the obsession with speedy statewi de and nationwide school reform. The foreseeable obsolescence of the national educat ional goals thus represents the culmination of the reform dynamic, not the exceptio n. One may wonder, then, what shall be the fate of the outdated goals? Extensive sociol ogical writings exist on how organizations change their goals. The first work co mmonly cited, Michels' Political Parties (1915/1959), describes what he called the "iron la w of oligarchy," the way that the need to create a political apparatus to affect legislation shifted the emphasis of party organizations from the original ideals onto party m aintenance and thus made those political structures conservative. The ensuing lite rature on organizational goals expanded this notion of shifted goals from goal dis placement (such as the evolving goals of political organizations) to goal abandonment or, alternatively, goal succession with the achievement of explicit goals (Blau, 1956). The classic example of goal succession in the United States is the March of Dimes, origina lly organized to ameliorate the suffering of polio victims. Its leaders later spons ored the mass field tests of the Salk polio vaccine and realized with the success of the vaccine that it had worked itself out of a job. The national board quickly found another (in the field of birth defects) (Sills, 1958). The literature on the history of goals in or ganizations suggests that the internal needs of organizations help shape the specific futu re for written goals is automatic. The major difference between the problems of organizational goals and the national education goals is that the education goal s were the putative objectives not of a specific institution but of an entire country. The dynamics of a single organization are simply not an issue in educational politics or publ ic policy in general. Nonetheless, one can draw the lesson from organizational sociology t hat a larger version of institutional dynamics, specifically how people have built their lives around the existence of routines, strongly influences what happens to explicit object ives. The course of political goals (and here I mean nothing pejorative by calling them political) depends on partisan struggle and also on how the structure of people's experiences (in this case, the organization and practices of schooling) help defin e what people see as important. To be specific, schools have evolved a complex set of goa ls that have a complicated, interdependent relationship with how individuals be come active in educational politics. In the nineteenth century, Katznelson and Weir (198 5) have argued, public education became tied to the franchise as both universal whit e male franchise and free elementary schooling spread through the United States. Since t hen, those active in educational politics have become involved in many ways dependin g on their interests and whether they define schooling as a matter of concern for th em as residents of a neighborhood, as workers in an economy, (more recently) as consumers of various markets, or in some other way tied to some aspect of their identities. Schools have accrued these purposes and associated identities as they have become wellestablished in the United States, and these agglomerated interests are unlikely to disapp ear.


5 of 9 One caveat to this general argument about the intransigence of speedy reform is important. The new theme of choice in educational p olitics over the past ten or fifteen years in the United States is likely to complicate the reformulation of educational reform, possibly at the expense of achievement goal s (See note below.) Not all parents believe that measurable achievement is the most imp ortant purpose of schooling, and arguments in favor of parents' power over schooling is likely to undermine arguments in power of the state's interest in improving test sco res and other measures of achievement. What is less likely is for the notion of choice in schooling (whether public or private) to affect the momentum of high-stakes reforms. The sha pe of those reforms may change, but until schools become far less important to the everyday lives and concerns of families, the reasons for political opportunity in education reform will remain. Voters will remain concerned about formal education for a variety of reasons, and officeholders and candidates will demand reform as a way of estab lishing political credentials. One can thus predict, with some accuracy, that the national education goals will undergo some amendment in the near future, but in a way to keep some implicit pressure on schools and public policy to change. I suspect t hat the National Education Goals Panel will not simply replace "2000" with "2010" or some such formulation that will invite ridicule. Instead, a more vague phrasing is likely to appear, suggesting the imperative nature of change without specifying anot her deadline. The essential dynamic will remain, though, of demands for change that occ asionally shift in emphasis. The "waves" of reform will keep pounding on our politic al shores. A recent report on deaths caused by medical errors in the United States provi des an unusual and sad reason for comparing educational and medical systems in this i mperative for action: for once, observers of school reform can tell medical reforme rs what to expect from attempted systemic change. The paper, by the Institute of Med icine's Committee on Quality of Health Care of America, estimated that medical mist akes cause more than 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. It recommended a vigorous acco untability system to report all medical mistakes, a center for patient safety to se t safety goals and monitor progress towards them, and a reassessment of such progress a t the end of five years, by which time the committee hopes such deaths would fall by half (Corrigan, Kohn, & Donaldson, 1999). One can examine this report as an example of attempted reform and analyze the factors that may affect its success. Cutting mortal ity from any cause in half within five years is desirable, but this result would require t he type of fundamental change in health care that the creation of a center is unlikely to s timulate. If, as the report indicates, overworked staff members in poorly-funded and -supp lied institutes are more likely to make mistakes than others, then the stingy characte ristics of the managed care system in the U.S. are likely to thwart much of the power of reporting, tracking, and analysis of a center on the ultimate medical accountability—life. In this respect, the report on fatal medical mistakes is eerily similar to attempts to i mprove education through statistics-gathering and accountability mechanisms. Such a comparison, however comforting it may be to cynical observers of school reform, is not likely to be a revelation to scholar s of public health. Medical historians and sociologists are well aware of problems with te chnocratic approaches to public health concerns. For example, assumptions about the ability to conquer sexually-transmitted diseases by antibiotics have, in retrospect, hidden much of the moralizing aspects of the anti-venereal disease cam paigns early in the century (Brandt, 1985). Few on the committee are likely to underesti mate the difficulties involved in such broad goals. Instead, perhaps a more useful way of looking at the report is to see it as an example of an ambitious set of goals and deadlines that are impossible to meet. In that regard, the goal of halving mortality from medical mistakes is akin to the establishment


6 of 9of national goals for education. All are certainly worthy ideals in an abstract sense. Yet what is driving the putative timetable for reform i s not feasibility but the vulnerability many citizens feel in connection with both schools and hospitals. One consequence of setting such goals is having at some point to re-ev aluate their attainment and, ultimately, legitimacy. Whether the United States will have suc h an open political debate on the national education goals or the appropriate pace of reform is unknown.NoteJurgen Herbst, professor emeritus from the Universi ty of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently researching a comparison of school choice history in the United States and central Europe, and his work is likely to suggest, as Claire Smrekar's does, the diversity of private purposes for education in the context of choice.ReferencesBlau, Peter M. Bureaucracy in Modern Society New York: Random House, 1956. Brandt, Allan. No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disea se in the United States since 1880 New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Corrigan, Janet, Linda Kohn, and Molla Donaldson, e ds. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999. Cuban, Larry. "Reforming Again, Again, and Again." Educational Researcher 19, 1 (1990): 3-13.Harrison, Bennett, and Barry Bluestone. The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America New York: Basic Books, 1988. Katznelson, Ira, and Margaret Weir. Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Michels, Robert. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Olig archical Tendencies of Modern Democracy Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publi cations, 1915/1959.National Education Goals Panel. The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners, 1999 Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office 1999. Retrieved December 2, 1999, from the World Wide Web : Potter, David M. People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the Americ an Character Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.Sarason, Seymour B. The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course before it's too Late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990. Sills, David L. The Volunteers: Means and Ends in a National Organi zation New York: The Free Press, 1958Smrekar, Claire. The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the I nterest of


7 of 9 Families and Schools Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1996. Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1995.About the AuthorSherman Dorn Email: Sherman Dorn is Assistant Professor in the Departme nt of Psychological and Social Foundations at the University of South Florida. He received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 based on his wor k on the history of dropout policies. He is currently looking at the history of special e ducation in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1940 to 1990.Copyright 2000 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesThe World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is General questions about appropriateness of topics o r particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, or reach him at College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 8 5287-0211. (602-965-9644). The Commentary Editor is Casey D. C obb: .EPAA Editorial Board Michael W. Apple University of Wisconsin Greg Camilli Rutgers University John Covaleskie Northern Michigan University Alan Davis University of Colorado, Denver Sherman Dorn University of South Florida Mark E. Fetler California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Richard Garlikov Thomas F. Green Syracuse University Alison I. Griffith York University Arlen Gullickson Western Michigan University Ernest R. House University of Colorado Aimee Howley Ohio University Craig B. Howley Appalachia Educational Laboratory William Hunter University of Calgary Daniel Kalls Ume University Benjamin Levin University of Manitoba Thomas Mauhs-Pugh Green Mountain College Dewayne Matthews Western Interstate Commission for Higher


8 of 9Education William McInerney Purdue University Mary McKeown-Moak MGT of America (Austin, TX) Les McLean University of Toronto Susan Bobbitt Nolen University of Washington Anne L. Pemberton Hugh G. Petrie SUNY Buffalo Richard C. Richardson New York University Anthony G. Rud Jr. Purdue University Dennis Sayers Ann Leavenworth Centerfor Accelerated Learning Jay D. Scribner University of Texas at Austin Michael Scriven Robert E. Stake University of Illinois—UC Robert Stonehill U.S. Department of Education David D. Williams Brigham Young UniversityEPAA Spanish Language Editorial BoardAssociate Editor for Spanish Language Roberto Rodrguez Gmez Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico Adrin Acosta (Mxico) Universidad de J. Flix Angulo Rasco (Spain) Universidad de Teresa Bracho (Mxico) Centro de Investigacin y DocenciaEconmica-CIDEbracho Alejandro Canales (Mxico) Universidad Nacional Autnoma Ursula Casanova (U.S.A.) Arizona State Jos Contreras Domingo Universitat de Barcelona Erwin Epstein (U.S.A.) Loyola University of Josu Gonzlez (U.S.A.) Arizona State Rollin Kent (Mxico)Departamento de InvestigacinEducativa-DIE/ Mara Beatriz Luce (Brazil)Universidad Federal de Rio Grande do Sul-UFRGSlucemb@orion.ufrgs.brJavier Mendoza Rojas (Mxico)Universidad Nacional Autnoma deMxicojaviermr@servidor.unam.mxMarcela Mollis (Argentina)Universidad de Buenos


9 of 9 Humberto Muoz Garca (Mxico) Universidad Nacional Autnoma deMxicohumberto@servidor.unam.mxAngel Ignacio Prez Gmez (Spain)Universidad de Daniel Schugurensky (Argentina-Canad)OISE/UT, Simon Schwartzman (Brazil)Fundao Instituto Brasileiro e Geografiae Estatstica Jurjo Torres Santom (Spain)Universidad de A Carlos Alberto Torres (U.S.A.)University of California, Los


1 of 2 September 27, 2000 Contributed Commentary on Volume 8 Number 2: America Y2K: The Obsolescence of Educational Reforms, Sherman Dorn Patrick P. Persichilli University of Michigan I believe that Sherman Dorn's article, America Y2K: The Obsolescence of Educational Reforms illustrated some significant barriers to successf ul education reform. I agree that political rhetoric, which freq uently determines policy agendas and timelines, definitely impedes progress toward real reform. Too often policymakers and legislators set lofty, unattainable goals at the ex pense of quality programs and timely delivery. The discussion of solid organizational goal changes is key to progress in the education reform debate. Ignoring the "fishbowl of publicity" model of public administration, there is much to be learned from pr ivate sector management of organizational change issues. Successful change mus t begin with the identification of attainable goals, and a plan to achieve them. Unrea listic goals and deadlines, as already evidenced, will accomplish little without an infras tructure or defined process to achieve them. The creation of education management "mission s" and "values" will empower stakeholders at all levels to make value added deci sions that will benefit the "customer." Implementation of total quality management (TQM) pr inciples will enable bloated bureaucracies to lean out and focus on the delivery of quality services. Private sector prototyping is an interesting concept, which can be used to develop innovative approaches to organizational change. Initiatives su ch as "Six-Sigma" and ISO standards allow administrators to focus on value streams with in their organizations enabling them to increase quality and manage cost. The recent ISO certification of a publicly funded school in Windsor, Ontario, Canada represents a new trend in school management to increase innovation in the delivery of education pr iorities. Innovation and conceptual mastery must be pre-requisites for organizational c hange, with tough issues like outsourcing being addressed to allow institutions t o focus on their core business, providing quality education. New reforms must enable administrators to p rovide quality education within an organizational context capable of responding to cha nging societal, economic, and technological factors. Performance measurement stan dards must be developed to gauge effectiveness of any new initiatives. Putting aside the debate on the success of past educational goal setting, it must be realized that unrealistic deadlines for educational objectives will not contribute any value-add to edu cational reform initiatives. Rather, success will come out of tangible goal changing ini tiatives. Progress will be slow, and will inevitably increase the "reform" impatience de scribed by Dorn, but will hopefully lead to a stronger infrastructure to support much n eeded change. About the Author


2 of 2Patrick P. Persichilli is a Graduate Student in Public Administration at the University of Michigan. Email:

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