The Penetration of Technocratic Logic into the Educational Field: Rationalizing Schooling from the Progressives to the Present

May. 01, 2013

Source: Teacher College Record, Volume 115, No. 5, 2013.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article compares three major movements demanding accountability in American education:
The efficiency reforms of the Progressive Era;
The movement toward accountability in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and
The modern standards and accountability movement, culminating in No Child Left Behind.

This article considers the three movements as cases of school “rationalization” in the Weberian sense in that each sought to reduce variation and discretion across schools in favor of increasingly formal systems of standardized top-down control.

Three Eras of Rationalizing Schooling
In the Progressive Era, a group of reformers comprised mostly of businessmen, city elites, and university professors empowered the superintendent as the “CEO” of the school system.
They directed him to use the latest scientific methods and modern management techniques to measure outcomes and ensure efficient use of resources.
The newly emerging science of testing was used widely to ensure that teachers and schools were up to standard and to sort students into appropriate tracks.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a second accountability movement took hold of American schooling, this time at the state level.
It sought both to improve the quality of schooling for all and to spend public dollars efficiently.

The reformers from the 1980s to the present created a much more robust system of state-level accountability, which in turn provided the foundation for federal reform through No Child Left Behind.

Discussion and Conclusion

The most recent standards and accountability movement is actually the third movement of its type in the 20th century.

These three movements (1900–1920; 1963–1974; and 1983–present) share certain features of organizational rationalization.
1. schools are declared to be in crisis by an authoritative source;

2. a high status epistemic community offers a solution premised on what it claims are scientifically validated premises of management practice;

3. a wide variety of actors external to the schools supports such a logic as a way to control schools and create greater standardization from the outside;

4. objections from teachers, who resent accountability and see aspects of their professional autonomy being compromised, do not prevail because of the low status and weak institutionalization of a feminized profession.

The author concludes that teaching needs to strengthen its professional core if it does not want to be repeatedly vulnerable both to external movements for accountability and the infusion of external technocratic logics.

The author claims that educators should develop the characteristics associated with more developed professions, such as a robust knowledge base, a method of selecting, training, and licensing that produces skilled practitioners, and ongoing standards for monitoring practice.

Professionalizing teaching could also change the relationship between schools and policymakers.
Policymakers and schools would work collaboratively to enable teachers rather than developing policies that provoke active resistance from the very people who are expected to implement them.
Emerging international evidence suggests that a more professional approach would increase teacher autonomy and also improve student outcomes.

Updated: Jul. 03, 2013