“Ideas motivate great undertakings that change the political world. They draw upon people’s best impulses and highest ideals—their desire to build a great nation, a better and more wholesome people, a more egalitarian society, or a more democratic polity. Ideas translate those ideals into practical suggestions that have the capacity to direct the energies of large numbers of citizens. At first, only a few have the vision to see how an ideal can be turned into reality. They initially lack material political resources, so they often turn to facts and figures and findings to move their agenda forward. For a shorter or longer period of time, vested interests can ignore them, but good ideas, like a steady rain, eventually wear away longstanding edifices.”

“A few exceptional leaders had the missionary zeal and reform-minded ideas that motivated many others to try to save the schools from the vested interests of the past. The problematic story of six of these cause-minded leaders, and how their efforts altered America’s educational system (though not in the ways they desired), unfolds in the pages that follow. Each of the…reformers, heroic in his aspirations and ideals, had a powerful idea, a loyal following, and an impact that changed the system, but each was frustrated, in part for reasons of his own making.”

“If the six individuals who helped to build the contemporary school system could have observed the transformation that potentially lies ahead, they would be more pleased than disappointed, though they would express some misgivings. Horace Mann would be chagrined that a common culture Martin Luther King Jr. would be disheartened by growing gaps in educational achievement, but pleased to see the end of the tyranny of the segregated neighborhood and enjoy the prospect that bright African American boys and girls will have access to the same facilities as anyone else. Al Shanker, regretful that teachers’ unions had lost membership and influence, would appreciate the higher salaries, professionalism, and autonomy that technology has made possible for the smaller but more talented teaching population that remains. As pleased as any of the six, Coleman would welcome schools that had coaches instead of instructors, peers that played academic games with one another, and students that competed against standards instead of classmates. William Bennett would be disturbed that virtual schools focused more on pedagogy than content, but he would nonetheless remind one and all, again and again, that he was among the first to realize that virtual education could, at last, genuinely transform learning. Julie Young, in 2145, would simply join the pantheon of those who have transformed America’s schools, fulfilling the prediction emblazoned on the exterior of her school’s headquarters.”

Adapted from Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning
by Paul E. Peterson, published March 2010 by Harvard University Press.
Copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Research support for Saving Schools was provided by the Koret Task Force
on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Horace Mann, the first secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education, who served in that position from 1837 to 1848.  

Albert Shanker, the head of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, who revolutionized public-sector collective bargaining.

John Dewey, the progressive philosopher-educator who founded the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago in1896, then concluded his teaching career at Columbia University.  

William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, who used the bully pulpit that office provided to make educational excellence a national political issue.

Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who challenged school segregation from Montgomery to Birmingham to Chicago, and, through a notable 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, left a spiritual and educational legacy the country has not forgotten.  

James S. Coleman, the University of Chicago sociologist who provided the intellectual underpinnings for the excellence movement that began to question the workings of the school-industrial complex.
Peterson has written the best guide to our efforts to reform schools over the past twenty-five years.
— Nathan Glazer, Harvard University