This earnest tie-in to a PBS series provides a solid introduction to the roller-coaster ride that has been public education in the US for the last 200 years.
The goals and aspirations, and the contentions, that have shaped public education, write the authors, find their reflection in a wider societal context as to who we are as a nation. As the notion of a common school arose after the Revolutionary War, there was little doubt that schooling was for the common good, but would the different states find in it a common purpose? No—the schools would more likely display the social diversity of the country, showcase ethnic and racial bias, and serve as arenas for political struggles. It is fascinating to watch here as the public-education agendas rise and fall like great waves. The common-school movement—with its grassroots governance and consensual curriculum (meaning republicanism braced with Protestant moral teaching)—gave way to the policy elites in the early 20th century, when the exaltation of the expert meant out with the lay teachers and rural school trustees, in with the education know-it-all. Then, in a rush, the democracy of difference, extolling big schools with grand centralized planning, followed closely by the small-is-beautiful movement, calling for a return of standards and greater parental involvement, breaching the buffer that had protected school administrations from participatory democracy. Running through the whole process, now quietly, now with vigor, were the needs of cultural and economic democracy. All of this is amply illustrated here—including essays by education historians Carl Kaestle on common schools, Diane Ravitch on the immigrant experience, James Anderson on questions of race, and Larry Cuban on the insidious idea of education as a consumer product—including most remarkably that government-distrusting, tax-pinching, independent Americans have any public education at all.
A worthy attempt to highlight the common good of public education that for all its blisters and boils, is at least a stab at democracy.