Curious about how the history of education in the U.S. affects the school reforms being discussed today?
Dr. Mike Johanek, a Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania researches exactly that. He focuses on the history of school reform, school choice, citizen education, and educational leadership development.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Mike Johanek’s thoughts on:
- What the ultimate purpose of education is in society (0:56)
- If American students are falling behind in test scores (3:40)
- The role U.S. politics in school standards (5:31)
- A brief history of education in America (6:39)
- Education and schooling as a means of social welfare in the U.S. (8:51)
- What school choice is and its history (10:33)
- The two decisions that most impacted education in the last 50 years (11:19)
- How to increase access to education (13:05)
- Why there’s a shortage of teachers and how to fix it (15:21)
- His preferred form of education reform (17:33)
Want to hear more from Dr. Mike Johanek?
[00:00:00] Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m speaking with Dr. Mike Johanek.
He’s a Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he’s also the Director of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership.
We’re hearing from him about what the history of schools looks like in America, school reform, and access to education overall.
I’m so glad to be talking with you today. I’d love to know. Did you always know that you wanted to go into education?
[00:00:31] Dr. Michael Johanek: No, I did not. In fact, I didn’t plan on going into education. I was an econ major with a strong interest in theater. So, you could see I was really well-focused by the time I got out of college.
When I got invited to teach at my old high school, I went back and found out I loved it. And I’ve stayed in ever since.
What’s the ultimate purpose of education?
[00:00:48] Coursera: So, I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you think the role of education is in society.
[00:00:56] Dr. Michael Johanek: The big answer would be education is how we decide to reproduce and enhance our society for the next generation.
But schooling, I think, is probably what we’re also thinking about. So, a lot of times, we conflate the two of those. And you think we’re talking about education, but we’re really talking about schools.
So, there are particular roles I think schools have. But also, part of what drew me to the history of education is the understanding that we educate ourselves in lots of different ways, schools among them.
Schools have a particularly important area, and it’s a compulsory thing. You do that because we think that society is going to benefit, not just you. We think society has some interest in it.
I started out as a social studies teacher. I got very excited about the idea that I could help form citizens of this country and the Democratic Republic. I really was jazzed about that and very excited, and I think I got a couple of my students excited as well.
But that overall, we weren’t really holding schools accountable for that. There’s never been a superintendent who’s been tossed out of their office because half their students didn’t vote when they graduated, which is about the average.
And that was actually what drew me to history was to try to understand the discrepancy between what we often say we want schools to be accomplishing and what they actually seem to be accomplishing.
I do think they’re very important in the preparation of citizens, but the degree to which, even in the way we talk about schools today. How often do we say, ‘Let’s look at that high school. Let’s see how well its adult graduates are performing as citizens.’?
That’s one of the reasons we have for us, saying, ‘We’re going to take your taxes and pay for my kid’s education.’ So, it’s not just so that they can go on and have a nice car and a nice house and live out wherever.
It’s because we want to make sure they’re going to vote, and they’re going to vote on things of importance to all of us. And we want them to be informed, intelligent, wise, prudential individuals and so forth.
And so where does that happen? Well, one place we want it to happen is the school. And if we think about report cards that we have about schools and all those sorts of things, there’s not a whole lot about that.
And I think that kind of discrepancy helped me get interested in history.
Does education develop good citizens?
[00:02:38] Coursera: I’d love to hear more about where you see that kind of discrepancy between that idealistic—what we want school and schooling to do—versus what it currently does now, from your perspective.
[00:02:51] Dr. Michael Johanek: In the U.S., I think it’s very hard to talk about what schools do and don’t do because there are so many different systems and sets of schools, and the variety in the United States is vast.
The challenge is that we have conditions in which we have kids existing and living to a far greater degree that’s far more challenging than most of the countries with whom we would like to compare ourselves.
So, the kinds of challenges of underserved communities and the traumatic experiences of kids, the uncertainty of a lot of what they have in their day-to-day existence is something that schools have been more and more asked to take a role in trying to mitigate the effect of.
I think the schools have actually been adjusting as well as they can, and there’s some good evidence actually for it. Even when sometimes scores look flat—when you look at what the changes within the populations and everything else going on—there are some things for the U.S. to actually be proud about, in terms of how the overall systems perform.
Are American students falling behind?
[00:03:40] Coursera: Like you said, there have been new results that came out from what’s called the Nation’s Report Card. It looks like achievement results have been pretty much the same since the early-to-mid 2000s, but it sounds like numbers like that don’t ruffle your feathers too much.
[00:03:53] Dr. Michael Johanek: First of all, these are aggregate numbers. These are meant to look across the country. There are all sorts of variations inside of that to me are as important as that average.
Anyway, to use them as a guide, to say, ‘What questions does this raise for us?’ Yes. Interesting. Worth it.
I wouldn’t spend an overly large amount of time on them because they’re meant to give that kind of a thermostat reading. They’re not meant to be diagnostic
So, of course, people will say, ‘Well, therefore, the reforms that we opposed, if it’s been flat, then those didn’t succeed at all. And we have to just change to something else.’ Of course, that’s too broad a stroke to mean much.
How to Tell If Education Reform Is Working
[00:04:28] Coursera: When you make changes to the educational system, how do you see if some of those changes are having an impact?
[00:04:34] Dr. Michael Johanek: The horrible answer from research, of course, is it depends on what you’re hoping the outcome will be.
If we’re interested in certain narrow bands of literacy and numeracy, then yes, we can do those through assessments that we have.
There were other kinds of aspects that we’re looking at—outcomes that are harder to determine in terms of people’s success. We can look at people’s grades, their income levels, and happiness, too, patterns of their behavior.
I think part of the challenge has been in the last several years is that we have been finding that we have been engaging in a very narrow way.
But the other is that to do good assessment is expensive. And those are more expensive than we generally have been willing to invest in those. So that’s, that’s part of the challenge.
We’ve also, unlike some of the countries in Europe, we don’t have the same sets of longitudinal studies as well. And we would benefit from more of those, where we can actually follow individuals over the course of 20, 30 years to see how these factors and to have an interplay with each other.
[00:05:31] Again, those are investments that it’s hard as a politician or anybody else to stand up there and say, ‘You know what? We really want to invest more in assessments.’ It’s just really hard on the campaign trail to get people rallied up for those things. And yet, the fact of the matter is, if we’re going to get more sophisticated about that will require more sophisticated assessments and investments.
Somebody had a great explanation once about why testing and standards are always part of the politics. Because you can go in there, decry the standards, have people say, ‘We’re gonna need to raise the standards for schools.’
So, in year one, you argue about the standards. Year two or so, you start to get the standards into place and get an assessment built. And then, by year three, before your election in year four, you do the first test.
But what happens every time you have a new assessment, scores always go down on the first time at the new assessment. And so, therefore, you just verified the fact that you needed to do those standards because see, this is what people are really doing—and then you get reelected. So, there are some really convenient cycles that some of these kinds of reforms
Brief History of Education in America
[00:06:21] Coursera: Thinking in concrete terms about what school reform and change would look like in concrete practice, and then gauge how successful it is.
But before we go too deep down that road, I’d love it if we could take a step back and talk about how we got here in America. What’s the history of education?
[00:06:39] Dr. Michael Johanek: We were all just bouncing along nicely. Horseman came around, and we decided to do common schools. And there we go.
[00:06:46] Coursera: Done.
[00:06:47] Dr. Michael Johanek: And ever since, we’ve been trying to figure out what they mean.
Over the last couple of centuries, the role of the school itself and formalized education has become much more prevalent than had been the case for much of our history.
So, it’s sometimes hard for us to step out of that in the present moment. But there were plenty of other ways in which you became educated or trained such as, you know, apprenticeships and workshops.
It’s only really in the 19th century that we see a more concerted effort to say, ‘We need to have a more systematic way in which we have schools and that we make them come in as a way to hold the Republic together.’
Challenged with all sorts of kinds of divisions internally, by waves of immigration, that seemed to be challenging as well to what some people felt the nation was.
So, you had those kinds of challenges and said, ‘Well, we need to have a common experience to make sure we maintain the Republic and not split apart and so forth.’ So, that’s a part of that impulsive.
Common schools expanded in the mid and late 19th century. You also see the expansion of a large private education system—Catholic schools— that were forming then in lots of cities in the North. For instance, 30 to 50% of the K-12 enrollment was in these private schools.
David Tyack used to talk about the triumph of the one best system of this common school system. The notion that we probably understand when we think of public school, which is you go to your local grade school and middle school and high school, and they’re all run by your local community. And those continue to be a dominant form of people’s experiences. Interestingly enough, the numbers in sort of private education and others are not all that different than they were a hundred years ago.
[00:08:12] So, it’s not as if we have one centralized national piece. Each state has a prerogative over schooling. Most of the funding we have for schools comes down to state and local taxes. It’s not coming out of federal, national money, and that’s where legally the responsibility is at a state level.
We are traditionally very leery of anything that smacks of the collective, and we don’t want that collective entity to be very big. So, we’d rather have a local district that has two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school.
So, you have 50-plus different systems. And in some states, you have hundreds of districts inside of those. So, it’s one system, but not really.
Education as a Means of Social Welfare in U.S.
[00:08:51] In a very individualistic, decentralized, kind of place that the U.S. has been, we ended up encouraging more people to go to school earlier than a lot of other countries.
But, we also did it before we brought into place a lot of the sort of social welfare systems that other countries put in first. Why is that important?
Well, in many ways, first of all, it expanded schooling much more rapidly, which meant you suddenly needed lots more people running those schools, which had implications for the nature of the profession of teaching and administration and so forth.
But the other was that you drew on something that was a more individualistic kind of solution to what your social welfare would be.
And our own sort of use of social welfare systems has lagged other countries because we tend to say, ‘Well, we’re going to give these opportunities for schooling, and then, it’s up to you.’
We’ve used it as this kind of vehicle for social improvement and social welfare, if you will—in some ways in place of the attention to pensions and so forth that were getting into place in other countries.
[00:09:43] So, then the schools have continued to be a vehicle for lots of social changes. Too many people are bullying each other, so the schools ought to do something about it. Now, too many people are overweight, so the schools really ought to do something about it, et cetera.
We’ve had a long history of the schools being a vehicle for those kinds of social conversations. Rather than say, let’s talk about our housing policy, or let’s talk about our income policy or something. That’s not something we’re very comfortable talking about in the U.S. even now. So, it takes us off the hook in some ways of social issues and the things that we think schooling can solve.
I think part of it is because we can talk about schools. It sounds very individual. When we start talking about housing policy, that’s a need for us collectively to make a decision.
And to say, well, what do we really mean? We want everyone to have a good equal chance at education. Oh, so that means we want to equalize funding and transportation for all schools. Well, not really.
What is school choice? What is its history?
[00:10:30] Coursera: Right. So, how does school choice play into that?
[00:10:33] Dr. Michael Johanek: Typically when people are talking about school choice these days, they tend to be talking about charter schools or vouchers or tuition tax credits or other kinds of ways in which we would presumably be giving parents more choice about what schools they can send their kids to.
If choice is really about what choices parents have for schooling of their kids, then it’s a much wider set of options. And the largest option by far is the people who choose their residency based on the quality of the schools. People choose where they’re going to live because they hear the schools are very good.
Now, obviously, some people can choose real estate that’s more expensive than others, and others aren’t in a position to be buying real estate. And so, we sort out by wealth and ability to get into real estate, and again, afford certain areas. We sort out who’s got more choices.
History of Education Inequality in America
[00:11:19] It’s really hard to understand the current conversation outside of the fact of what’s happened in the last 50 years in the U.S., where we essentially made two big decisions.
Essentially, we had an argument about maybe what we ought to do is let everybody go wherever they want to go, but we will equalize funding for schools. Well, that has not really gotten very far.
In terms of effectively equalizing funding, we have some huge discrepancies in how much money people spend per capita on kids. Money’s not everything, but the recent studies are showing it does have actually a good impact on the achievement. So, we have allowed for this kind of proliferation of differences.
The other thing we did is with the Milliken decision in 74. The cities who are saying, ‘Look, we can’t really integrate our schools because we have become almost entirely minority cities, and others have fled to the suburbs. What we need to do if we really want integrated schools is to have cross urban, suburban kinds of integration plans.’
And the Milliken decision said, ‘No, the suburbs don’t need to get involved in that unless you can find some sort of smokin- gun memo that says we’re going to be segregating this suburb, then you can’t.’
[00:12:14] And so you let the cities on their own, and you weren’t gonna equalize funding. It’s in that context that the latest chapter of what we call school choice arises.
And so, then I think we just need to take into account a lot of the charter schools—the great majority of them—are in very low-income communities. So again, instead of saying let’s equalize funding and opportunities and so forth, we’ve instituted this whole, mechanisms of choice.
We do have some numbers on charters, which have grown rapidly. We have some less reliable numbers on homeschooling, which has also grown a good deal. And some numbers, much smaller numbers around things like vouchers and tuition tax credits, and those sorts of things that have encouraged people to use funds to go to whatever schools they want.
Whether or not we have school choice seems to me is just not the right question. We have it. We’ve had it. We’ve had market-based schooling since before the Republic existed. We still do. We probably always will. Question is how do you design the incentives? How do you design who can have what choices?
How to Increase Access to Education
[00:13:05] Coursera: Right, and I’d love to hear what you think are some concrete ways that we can increase access to education overall?
[00:13:14] Dr. Michael Johanek: We have succeeded in this long historical stretch of making schooling and even more broadly education, academic and skill performance, more and more important. And people are understanding that very well.
And people with resources are understanding that very well. Also, they are supplementing the schooling experiences of their kids to increasing amounts as well. And in fact, higher-income families will dedicate a larger—not just absolute dollar amounts, but a larger percentage of their disposable income—to supplemental education.
For students who are already in schools where the per capita spending is higher than most, they’re already spending thousands extra per kid for that summer trip that combines service learning and Spanish language in Costa Rica or something. Whatever it might be, right?
So, if anything, this proliferation of tools and experiences that are educational—plus the fact that everyone is more and more convinced of how important education is—has, in fact, probably exacerbated some of that difference in access.
Think about the access to the number of words kids know before they come into school by economic quintile is dramatic. If you look at the experiences that they have with non-family members, so the kids who were out in museums and out in other contexts and so forth versus not before they go into schools. All of those things are significant differences that supplemental kinds of expenditures are probably just aggravating.
[00:14:28] Now, I think the only way you really address this significantly is by the significant investment in the attractiveness of the profession.
Because given the proliferation of tools arising in education—and we’ve not touched upon such things that could be significant tools around AI and machine learning, and so forth—is that the role of the teacher is going to become much more sophisticated over time.
So, how to create a profession that draws in that kind of talent and sustains it has been a long-term challenge for our system.
And we have tolerated a discrepancy in the kind of remuneration and conditions that some teachers have to deal with versus others. And the turnover rate of teachers—the turnover rate of school leaders and others—has a pattern that is disproportionate with resources of those communities; lower-income, higher-underserved percentages of students, more turnover of teachers and staff, and so forth.
That aggravates those differences. If we want to change it, that churn needs to change.
Reason for Teacher Shortage
[00:15:21] Coursera: Right. And in addition to the churn, a new study came out that said since 2010, a third fewer Americans are training to be teachers. So, in addition to fewer people sticking with it, there are fewer people entering the profession altogether. What’s your take on how big of an impact that’s going to have on the education system?
[00:15:41] Dr. Michael Johanek: Well, I think it actually is significant. I mean, it’s hard to tell. We’ve always had challenges with the supply. Part of the challenge, of course, with teaching as a profession, is the numbers are much larger than the other things that we call professions.
So, we need millions of teachers. We don’t necessarily need millions of lawyers or surgeons. So, part of it is simply a numbers game.
That’s part of the challenge. The second has been that we haven’t had a long tradition of not valuing the profession—and I think some of our policies recently.
There has been some sort of a public castigation of teachers for anything going wrong. After a while, you’re like, why would I do that? Why would I dedicate myself to a tough position, and then have it get regularly derided as being the source of all the problems? So, that makes it less attractive.
And so, you need to figure out how you build an attractive, sustainable field, and I think that’s one of those litmus tests for policy and education ought to be. What is the impact of this on the profession of who you would draw into this field?
How to Fix the Teacher Shortage
[00:16:33] Coursera: Especially coming up on the 2020 election, do you think teacher pay would have a big impact if you were going to pick how to get more people into the profession?
[00:16:41] Dr. Michael Johanek: I think it’s a part of it. The work that my colleague Richard Ingersoll and others have done around the teacher labor supply and such would caution us about using any one particular item. I mean, the work conditions that people are facing are significant.
We are fortunate that a lot of people go into teaching for all sorts of idealistic reasons and altruistic reasons. Those are a fact that it’s not necessarily as income-sensitive. On the other hand, people will stay in the professions if they think they can raise a family or go on to the adult life that they want to have based on that. And we don’t look competitive enough in that way. So, I do think that’s an issue.
If we’re serious, we’re going to look about also, how do we address the fact that some of the most challenging places for schools to operate, that we need to create positive incentives for those schools could develop further. And there are ways we can do that, and I think we have some good examples of how that can happen, but that’s an investment that needs to take place.
School Reform and Community-Based Education
[00:17:33] I happen to think the wisest move is to be doing community-centric development, in which the schools are a part of what is a multi-institutional approach to communities becoming stabilized so that they can improve and grow.
That’s a housing issue. That’s an investment in schools. It’s a place-based kind of approach. I think that has shown very promising outcomes where it’s been done—and done over a long period of time. You need about a ten-year trajectory for those kinds of things to really have legs and to develop a self-sustaining kind of engine once that local development gets underway.
It really is something that we do understand how to do—with the idea that we’re going to do it on the cheap, without paying teachers more and/or not addressing the multi-institutional way what’s happening in the community—is ignoring the reality that is going to affect those outcomes.
[00:18:17] Coursera: To keep learning from Dr. Mike Johanek, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in his course, American Education Reform.
[00:18:25] Dr. Michael Johanek: What it offers is a fairly quick view of how we’ve been wrestling with this question of improving schools and schooling and education in the United States for the last couple of hundred years.
It’s a straightforward accounting of some of the major pieces that have been happening in our history for the last couple of centuries. And I think it will help orient people to the current conversations, that gets people past the not terribly productive soundbites, especially.
Some of these conversations have long histories and, and it behooves us to figure out how others wrestled with some of the same questions.
So, it might be a good anecdote during the election to get something that gives you a little bit more depth than last hour’s Twitter feed.
[00:19:00] Coursera: As always, thanks for listening and happy learning.