William J. Reese's history of public schools in America examines why citizens have repeatedly turned to the schools to improve society and how successive generations of reformers have tried to alter the curriculum and teaching practice to achieve their goals. Organized around two themes - education as the means for reforming American society and ongoing reform within the schools themselves - this study examines two centuries of American public education. It explores school and society in the nineteenth century, including public school growth in the antebellum and postbellum eras; competing visions of education and reform during the first half of the twentieth century; and social change and reform from the 1950s through the 1980s. Reese emphasizes the centrality of schools in the history of reform and their persistent allegiance to traditional practices and pedagogy despite two centuries of complaint by romantics and progressives. He describes tradition as a reliable friend of public schools, despite the enormous changes that have occurred over time: the centralization of authority, professionalization of teaching staff, and the expansion of curricular offerings.
Reese's clear and accessible book is an original interpretation of the history of public elementary and secondary schools in America. It should become a standard text for future teachers as well as scholars of education.
William J. Reese is a professor of educational policy studies, history, and European studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.