Synopses & Reviews
Worries about the quality of public schooling in America are not new. Present since the mid-nineteenth century, the issue became a perennial one after 1918, the year in which elementary school attendance became compulsory in every state. The Allure of Order
traces the cyclical efforts to 'order' American schooling over the course of the twentieth century, from 1920s reform efforts up through No Child Left Behind and the current school accountability movement. The book explores why reformers from both the left and right have repeatedly placed such high hopes in these reforms and why teachers and schools have been unable to resist these external reformers. As he shows, the measurable has repeatedly crowded out the educationally meaningful, and reforms have never realized the hopes placed in them. In each reform effort, higher-status professionals have drawn from policies outside the educational arena and ridden roughshod over the teaching profession, which has remained, as he puts it, under-professionalized. Outside reformers looked to fix schools using Taylorist principles in the 1920s, Department of Defense metrics in the 1960s, and maxims from management gurus in our own era. In each case, a largely male administrative elite dictated to a largely feminized teaching profession that had little say over policy.
In fact, the whole American educational sector was put together backwards: we draw less than our most able people to teaching, underprofessionalize the field, equip teachers with a weak knowledge base, put them in a highly challenging situation because of a comparatively weak welfare state, and then, when they don't achieve the results we seek, impose increasingly stringent regimes of external accountability. Mehta proposes that we do the reverse: draw more talented people into teaching, train them well, support their efforts through a more robust welfare state, and stimulate a cycle of increased trust and lessening control. This is the strategy of a number of the countries that outpace the United States on international assessments, and it is essentially the opposite of America's preferred strategy. Empirically rich and sweeping in scope, The Allure of Order will force anyone who cares about educational policy to re-examine his or her fundamental beliefs about the problems plaguing our schools.
"Regimentation of students, and especially teachers is the ill-conceived fourth 'R' of education policy, according to this probing study of American public school reform. Harvard education professor Mehta describes three movements towards the 'rationalization' of education: the Progressive-era shift from one-room schoolhouses to centralized districts of factory-style schools where teachers toiled under scientific administrators; Vietnam-era applications of the Pentagon's 'systems analysis' techniques to education; and the recent drive for top-down accountability embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act. He sees recurring patterns in these episodes: warnings of crisis; calls to rein in out-of-control schools with principles of efficiency and external control; a fixation on testing and standards; and unsuccessful resistance by educators whose 'humanist' objections are seen as self-serving. Mehta situates fine-grained accounts of politics and legislation within elaborate sociological theorizing, partly cribbed from Pierre Bourdieu, that emphasizes the role of ideas and paradigms in motivating policy. He focuses on the status of teachers and puts the professionalization of teaching, along the lines of law and medicine, at the heart of his own reform agenda. There's not much here about the pedagogical substance of reform initiatives, but Mehta's sophisticated, but very readable analysis illuminates the ideological wranglings that shape them." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"The success of The Allure of Order is how it challenges anyone involved in education reform to reexamine their most closely held concepts. At this critical period when the only consensus among U.S. educators, reformers, and policymakers is the need for change, The Allure of Order is a major guide for the sweeping decisions that must be made during the next several years. While analyzing both the history and the common strands of education reform movements, Jal Mehta also puts forward meaningful proposals to avoid repeating the past while building a system that truly empowers educators to perform at their highest levels. Documenting that the current 'rationalization of schools' has reached its limits, Dr. Mehta points us to an approach that produces greater learning outcomes by trusting educators, sharing ideas, and moving away from the concept of 'one best system." --Robert Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education
"In this detailed historical and political reanalysis of America's checkered history of school reform, Jal Mehta finds two major patterns: an impulse on the part of reformers and policymakers for the imposition of order and coherence on a set of institutions that lack the incentives and capacities to respond to these ideas, and a persistent lack of attention to the underlying problems of human values, knowledge, and skill that actually determine the value of schooling to individuals and society over time. His analysis leads to a vision of the future that will be harder to achieve but more likely to succeed, based on valuing human knowledge and skill over technical order in the learning sector." --Richard F. Elmore, Gregory Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education
"A powerful academic treatise written lucidly which, being pleasingly free of jargon, deserves, nay demands, a wide readership...." --London School of Economics
"Highly recommended." --CHOICE
"Jal Mehta challenges our tendency to believe that every education reform effort is 'new' and therefore holds fresh promise for improving student performance... Although the value of standards as a primary driver of educational improvement has generated a plethora of literature, Mehta's search for why this reform has persisted, despite frustration with student achievement gains, adds depth to an ongoing and urgent policy discussion about strategies to improve student performance." --Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare
Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush agreed on little, but united behind the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Passed in late 2001, it was hailed as a dramatic new departure in school reform. It would make the states set high standards, measure student progress, and hold failing schools accountable. A decade later, NCLB has been repudiated on both sides of the aisle. According to Jal Mehta, we should have seen it coming. Far from new, it was the same approach to school reform that Americans have tried before.
In The Allure of Order, Mehta recounts a century of attempts at revitalizing public education, and puts forward a truly new agenda to reach this elusive goal. Not once, not twice, but three separate times-in the Progressive Era, the 1960s and '70s, and NCLB-reformers have hit upon the same idea for remaking schools. Over and over again, outsiders have been fascinated by the promise of scientific management and have attempted to apply principles of rational administration from above. Each of these movements started with high hopes and ambitious promises, but each gradually discovered that schooling is not easy to "order" from afar: policymakers are too far from schools to know what they need; teachers are resistant to top-down mandates; and the practice of good teaching is too complex for simple external standardization.
The larger problem, Mehta argues, is that reformers have it backwards: they are trying to do on the back-end, through external accountability, what they should have done on the front-end: build a strong, skilled and expert profession. Our current pattern is to draw less than our most talented people into teaching, equip them with little relevant knowledge, train them minimally, put them in a weak welfare state, and then hold them accountable when they predictably do not achieve what we seek. What we want, Mehta argues, is the opposite approach which characterizes top-performing educational nations: attract strong candidates into teaching, develop relevant and usable knowledge, train teachers extensively in that knowledge, and support these efforts through a strong welfare state.
The Allure of Order boldly challenges conventional wisdom with a sweeping, empirically rich account of the last century of education reform, and offers a new path forward for the century to come.
About the Author
is Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research explores the underlying structures which shape American schooling, the cultural assumptions which underpin these approaches to education, and the consequences of those decisions for schools, teachers, and students. He is the co-editor of The Futures of School Reform. Mehta received his Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy from Harvard University.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Allure of Order: Rationalizing Schools From the Progressive to the Present
Chapter Two: The Cultural Struggle for Control Over Schooling: The Power of Ideas and the Weakness of the Educational Field
Chapter Three: Taking Control from Above: The Rationalization of Schooling in the Progressive Era
Chapter Four: The Forgotten Standards Movement: The Coleman Report, the Defense Department, and a Nascent Push for Educational Accountability
Chapter Five: Setting the Problem: The Deep Roots and Long Shadows of A Nation at Risk
Chapter Six: A Semi-Profession in an Era of Accountability
Chapter Seven: E Pluribus Unum: How Standards and Accountability Became King
Chapter Eight: Transforming Federal Policy: Ideas and the Triumph of Accountability Politics
Chapter Nine: Rationalizing Schools: Patterns, Ironies, Contradictions
Chapter Ten: Beyond Rationalization: Inverting the Pyramid, Remaking the Educational Sector