Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society

By David Tyack (Harvard University Press, 237 pages, $22.95), BUY NOW!
reviewed by Frank Honts

In Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society, historian David Tyack writes with present-day educational debates in mind, studying how schools have tried to achieve consensus of purpose while dealing with diverse populations. Faith in democratic principles and practices, according to Tyack, has been essential to preserving public schools.

Typically, school reform efforts have emerged when conflict arises about what it means to be American. Within schools, this tension raises questions about how to acclimate new and different groups of students. During the mid-nineteenth century, a time when public schools were neither established nor inevitable, Horace Mann’s solution was “common schools,” a system that would serve as the “great equalizer” and “balance wheel of the social machinery” for a society confronting new immigrant populations. Progressives relied on systematic advances in behavioral and social sciences and offered their own prescriptions for child saving, compelling schools not only to attend to students’ intellectual growth but also to deal with the physical and emotional needs supposedly absent from immigrant child rearing. More recently, schools have generally adopted an inclusive approach, viewing cultural pluralism in schools as a plus for the successful schooling of all students.

In attending to these societal needs, schools have, in Tyack’s view, wrestled with the parallel (and sometimes competing) challenges of unity and diversity. How can schools establish and preserve central aims while simultaneously responding to students’ differences? In its early history, the United States tended toward homogeneity: certain values, largely Protestant and pro-republican, could be transmitted through Webster’s spellers, McGuffey’s readers, and moral catechisms. Education was to be devoid of controversy so teachers could address politically and morally charged issues (such as slavery) with neutrality.

New immigrant groups, diverse in scope and large in number, posed a challenge to this unity of purpose. In discussing reformers’ strategies to deal with these new and different children, Tyack reveals the sometimes contradictory nature of incorporation and exclusion. While programs aimed to socialize immigrant children, Progressive-era sociology classified them in often disturbing ways. Tracing the evolution of exclusionary language, Tyack identifies the terms that educators used during different periods to label immigrant and poor children. “Leftover,” “dull,” and “slow” gave way to “pupils of low IQ,” “limited” or “slow learners,” from which modern terminologies like “socially maladjusted,” “educationally difficult” or “immature learners” emerged.

At the core of the systems that generated these labels were two troubling notions: that the child was to blame for his problems, and that implicitly the terms meant something else, usually euphemistic descriptions of a child’s race, nationality, or ethnicity. Students’ authentic needs became mechanisms of classification and sorting while schools failed to address the underlying problems. In today’s system, Tyack sees the implementation of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on testing, as parallel to the futile enactment of earlier reformers’ goals.

In moving toward a unified educational vision while attending to individual student differences, reforms often have been incremental and piecemeal. But at other times, “reformers have come to believe that the educational system required not a tune-up but a major overhaul if the school was not to be a factory of failure for huge numbers of students.” Such work has often been the enterprise of progressive-minded reformers, and the Essential Schools movement of the past two decades follows in that tradition, recognizing the needs of the whole child, fundamentally changing the focus of the institutions that educate kids, and forcing the program structures to fit students’ needs (rather than the other way around).

In spite of all the contentious cross-currents, ideological battles, and mish-mosh of reforms that have taken place in schools, Tyack concludes that participatory democracy has been central to preserving American public schools. Local decision-making has helped preserve public schools’ vitality. Common schools relied on local boards, not central governing authorities, and Tyack contends that better decisions can be made about particular students’ needs in smaller and more local environments, an idea that dates back to Jeffersonian principles of democracy. While he provides less definition about how a national reform initiative like the Coalition of Essential Schools might act to help defend participatory democracy, the idea that schools must be entrusted with horizontal, collaborative, and collective decision making powers is a notion consistent with Tyack’s larger message.

With the challenge of “choice” (and all its different meanings at the classroom, curricular, school, and system-wide levels) to traditional conceptions of democracy, these local compacts, made up of informed citizens with the most real investment??”their own children??”are all the more important. This system, acknowledges Tyack, will always be messy, but it is essential to the preservation of American society.


Frank Honts is the Director of the Regional Teachers Center at the Francis W. Parker Charter School in Devens, Massachusetts