Taylor v. Dewey: The 100-year Trickle-Down vs. Pedagogical Debate/Fight in Education Reform

We have a seat ringside in the education reform debates that pit pedagogical reformers versus top-down trickle-down reformers. The roots of the debate between administrative versus pedagogical reform philosophies has a nearly 100-year history. The progressive reform era in education in the 1920s came into prominence in the era of prohibition and rapidly changing student demographics. An awakening of social conscience among the muckrakers, prohibitionists, and education reformers spurred the movement dubbed the progressive era. Progressive education reformers, so named by historians, are the precursors of the current educational policy discussions of today.

On one side were the administrative reformers argued that the primary goal of schooling was a uniform structure in the mold of Frederick Taylor industrialism that solely prepared individuals for an efficient placement in the workforce and factories.[1] In today’s language, the tenants of administrative reformism could be considered neoliberal. On the other side were the pedagogical reformers who proffered that schools should recognize and adapt to the individual capacity and interests of students rather than systemic standardization[2] —a position that aligns more closely with the socio-constructivist conception of teaching and learning.[3]

Floyd Mayweather Jr. of the U.S. battles it out with WBC welterweight champion Victor Ortiz, also of the U.S., during their title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas
Linda Darling-Hammond (Pedagogical reformer) v. Arne Duncan (Trickle-down reformer)

The administrative reformers sought to apply a top-down model where expert bureaucrats ran schools seeking social and economic efficiency. They supported multiple ability tracks, standardized curriculum, detailed records of students and upgraded training for education professionals.[4] Administrative reformers argued that the governance of city schools was immersed bureaucracy and inefficiency and should be turned over to a legion of educational experts. The administrative reformers have focused primarily on top-down reforms. More recently they have been dubbed trickle-down reformers[5] because they have sought to improve student achievement via a primary focus on organizational performance and aggressive “uniform” goals (high-stakes tests, evaluation rubrics, and standards) rather than individualized student-centered learning approaches.

The pedagogical reformers counterpoint to administrative progressives was that the key to student success was not centered in a sole focus on management processes, but rather on critical thinking, curriculum, and pedagogy to meet the needs of each unique student. John Dewey (as cited by Tyack) argued,[6]

It is easy to fall into the habit of regarding the mechanics of school organization and administration as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational purposes and ideas…We forget that it is such matters as the classifying of pupils the way decisions are made, the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child that really controls the whole system. (p. 176)

Pedagogical reformers concentrated on inspiring teachers to change philosophy, curriculum, and methods by giving them independence to increase student achievement and success (Tyack, 1974).[7] John Dewey argued that democratic education required “substantial autonomy” for teachers and children. He theorized that children needed education that was authentic—allowing them to grow mentally, physically and socially by providing student-centered opportunity to be creative, critical thinkers.[8] (Finland anyone?)

Table 1. Key Tenants of Administrative and Pedagogical Reform Philosophies

Pedagogical Reform (Student-Centered Education Reform) Administrative Reform (Trickle-Down Standardized Reform)
Purpose of Education Meet the individual needs and interests of a student to foster their cognitive growth. Ensure workplace and career readiness through the standardized approaches.
Characteristics Individualization— Focus on curriculum, instructional practices, pedagogy, and critical thinking to achieve student success Uniformity— Focus on administrative structures, managerial processes, curricular standardization, and to impact student success

Trickle-down Corporate Reform Philosophy Context

Educational historian David F. Labaree of Stanford University argued that the modern educational policy environment is heavily influenced by this long-standing debate between administrative (top-down) and pedagogical reform approaches.[9] He argued that the administrative reformers won the struggle to focus school reform on the management of schools and the measurement of standardized systemic structures. The trickle-down reformers agenda is dominating the conversation about educational reform and policymaking in the United States. From Michelle Rhee to Eli Broad, the top-down reform philosophy is strategic and politically powerful. In practice, trickle-down reformers bring the mindset of a standardization model to schools through various educational policies (i.e. Common Core, testing, centralized curriculum). As recently seen in Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD), Louisiana, Chicago, and Washington DC, trickle-down reformers are taking the helm in states and major metropolitan cities and implementing extensive changes based on the top-down administrative structures focusing on the standardization required by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.[10]

Mayweather Vs Mosley fight

Diane Ravitch (Pedagogical reformer) v. Michelle Rhee (Trickle-down reformer)

No Child Left Behind

The implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a major victory for trickle-down reformers, as competition for federal education dollars and an emphasis on charter and private management organizations was placed into law for the first time in our history. The coupling of top-down accountability measures with free-market school choice as the lever to encourage efficiency is based on the management practices heralded by trickle-down reformers as the fix to public education for historically underserved students. However, NCLB does not require changes to curriculum or pedagogical practice that would directly affect students, but rather a focus on the top-down management of our public schools.

NCLB codified a national top-down reform with broad bipartisan support. The success of NCLB is primarily dependent on threats to teachers and administrators through evaluation of test scores. The law required schools to meet strict federal performance indicators. Each school and district is required to satisfy annual benchmarks known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). If schools failed to meet each of the individual growth indicators on high-stakes testing instruments, they would be subject to public shame, less funding, threats to school staff jobs, and even building closure. The school turnaround initiatives required by NCLB opened the door to private and charter management organizations and placed emphasis on firing teachers and staff, requiring that a significant portion of a school’s staff be replaced. NCLB is clearly the most far-reaching federal education law in the history of the United States has a sole focus on trickle-down educational policy for our public schools.

In conclusion, Trickle-down reformers like to accuse Pedagogical reformers that if they opposed standardized top-down “reform” they are anti-reformer, in reality, they just favor pedagogical reform.

p.s. Who influences and trains the trickle-down reformers? What is their record on academic achievement? Tomorrow, Cloaking Inequity will be begin a new series entitled The Curious Case of Mike Miles and Trickle-Down reform.

This post was written in conjunction with Lindsay Redd and Dr. Ruth Vail and was excerpted from a report commissioned by the Foundation for Community Empowerment.

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Please blame Siri for any typos.


[1] Tyack, D. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, &  E. Souberman)

[4] Cuban, L (1988). Constancy and Change in Schools, 1880 to Present. In P. Jackson (Ed.), Contributing to Educational Change. (pp. 85-104). Berkeley, CA.: McCutchan.

[6] Tyack, D. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Macmillan.

[9] Labaree, D. F. (2005) Progressivism, Schools and Schools of Education: An American Romance. Paedagogica Historica, 41, 275-288

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