Education Change Motivated by Crisis

Wednesday, 2. July 2014

One of the characteristics of the history of American education is crisis and underlying culture as a motivating force for change.

An early example of this is the Old Deluder Satan Act, established in Massachusetts in 1647. The law required townships with at least 50 families to hire a community member to teach the town’s children to read and write.

According to the original text, the law was to prevent Satan from deceiving townsfolk by keeping them in a state of ignorance regarding the Holy Scriptures; a quote from the law states, “it being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”

The belief was that without a personal knowledge of the Holy Bible people would be deceived, but the act also served a secondary purpose, which was to rally citizens to pay taxes to educate town youth.

Another, more current example, is the National Defense Education Act of 1958. This legislation was initiated by the federal government as a response to the threat of Soviet scientific and technological superiority, as exemplified with the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957.

According to the act, “Congress hereby… declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles.”

Familiar outcomes associated with the National Defense Education Act include student loans for college enrollment, improvements to math, science, and foreign language instruction, an increase in guidance counseling and achievement testing; additional research to improve instructional media, such as television and radio, and an expansion of vocational education.

Yet a third example is A Nation at Risk, written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was formed during the administration of President Reagan. Terrel H. Bell, then Secretary of Education, was tasked by the president to report on the state of education in America. After 18 months of work, the 18 member committee delivered the report titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

The report began with “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” A Nation at Risk

The assumption that America was once unchallenged in economic, scientific, and technological endeavor is debatable, and certainly a statement made to galvanize political will for education change.

The report goes on to identify problems and solutions in the area of curricula, performance expectations, use of class time, and teacher quality. It should be noted that most of the commission’s recommendations were ignored, such as lengthening the school day and increasing teacher work contracts from 9 to 11 months. One recommendation which was embraced from the 90s onward, was use of standardized tests of achievement as a source of data for setting up accountability schemes to assign praise and blame to teachers, schools, and school districts.

Old Deluder, National Defense Education Act, and A Nation at Risk are three examples, among others, showing education change is at times effectively motivated by crisis, or at least the perception of crisis.