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The Allure of OrderHigh Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling$
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Jal Mehta

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199942060

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199942060.001.0001

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Taking Control from Above: The Rationalization of Schooling in the Progressive Era

Taking Control from Above: The Rationalization of Schooling in the Progressive Era

Chapter:
3 Taking Control from Above: The Rationalization of Schooling in the Progressive Era
Source:
The Allure of Order
Author(s):

Jal Mehta

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199942060.003.0005

The progressive era saw a massive rationalization of American schooling; its imprint stretches into the present day. Drawing on the ideas of (then) modern management techniques, a heterogeneous group of elites transformed a localized and highly varied system of schooling into what David Tyack famously called “the one best system.” This movement both created the form and structure of the school system that would profoundly shape later events and, as the benefit of hindsight makes evident, was driven by much the same underlying vision and set of forces that recurred in subsequent eff orts to rationalize schools. What motivated the Progressive Era transformation of schooling was the image of a rationally organized system of production. Whether in the public or private sector, the hallmarks of this approach are distinct organizational categories of work, clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, specialization of labor, and hierarchical control of workers by more powerful superiors. In the case of the school system, this meant a shift from one-room school-houses of age-mixed groups, with instruction and assessment largely decided by the teacher, to larger schools, with grades sorted by age, Carnegie units to measure student progress, and teachers’ work structured and assessed by their administrative superiors. In the larger context, one might say that this is just the story of the shift from preindustrial to industrial society, from small-scale institutions in which social connections and individual discretion were paramount to larger social organizations with systems, roles, and rules. But there are different versions of modernity, and the American school system was decisively shaped by a particularly rationalistic, scientific, and hierarchical approach to social organization. As we will see, the Progressive Era reformers were enthralled by the emerging power of scientific and business techniques that, they were convinced, would make schooling more efficient and effective. In particular, the brand of management techniques they embraced sought to shift power upwards from frontline workers (teachers) to administrative superiors, who would set goals, prescribe desired strategies, and use an early form of assessment to hold teachers accountable for their performance.

Keywords:   bell curve, immigration, intelligence tests, mental discipline, organizational sociology, pedagogical progressives, psychology, scientific management, time-and-motion studies

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