I'm excited about my new piece in Smithsonian, about the history of corporate and philanthropic influence over American public schools. It summarizes some of the research I've done for my upcoming book:
During the twentieth century, private interests drove a number of cyclical, sometimes conflicting education reform movements. From Chicago, Jane Addams built broad, elite support for an agenda of ending child labor and increasing the years of mandatory schooling. Across the country, politicians and school administrators were inspired by the ideas of the management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, and implemented complex new evaluation systems to rank and supposedly improve the work of teachers. One of the longest-lasting and historically fraught education reform movements was ability tracking tied to IQ tests, a so-called “social efficiency” agenda that consigned many non-white and working class students, as well as some middle-class girls, to courses in sewing, cooking, personal finance and “current events.” Testing companies marketed “intelligence” assessments later revealed to measure not the innate capacity to learn, but simply the quality of a student’s previous education. A 1932 survey of 150 school districts found three-quarters used IQ exams to assign students to different academic tracks.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement recast education in terms of equality: equal access to good schools, effective teachers and a curriculum with the ability to engage all children and hold them to high standards. Yet when the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education proved incredibly divisive, even in the black community, the national school reform agenda fractured.