The District Undone: Reorganizing, Reforming, and Reinventing the School District, 1925-2005
David Gamson

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Pennsylvania State University

Primary Discipline

After enduring decades of vilification, the American school district has recently been rediscovered as a vibrant mechanism for school reform. Across the country, cadres of practitioners and policymakers are returning to the once unfashionable notion that school districts are essential in fostering instructional improvement. This upbeat analytic attitude is, of course, not shared by all observers of contemporary American education. Since the 1960s, politicians, scholars, and reformers of multiple ideological perspectives have argued that many local school systems—especially those in large urban areas—have ossified into rigid bureaucracies that stifle innovation and creativity. In recent years, some innovators have sought to render the district irrelevant, or at least powerless, through vouchers, charter schools, whole-school reform networks, or through statewide standards-based curriculum and testing.Yet, although we know a good deal about the development of the local control of schooling in the nineteenth century and about the rise of large, centralized, and bureaucratized school systems during the Progressive era, we know remarkably little about the evolution of the school district, that fundamental democratic institution, since WWII. I suggest that the pervasive view of district history—that the school district has remained a relatively static institution since the early twentieth century—has shrouded a fascinating story of the ways in which districts have evolved in response to state and federal mandates, national reform movements, and a shifting political climate. My preliminary research and analysis suggests that the traditional authority, duties, and expectations of the American school district have been significantly altered—if not eroded—through multiple, and often conflicting, demands over the past half century, beginning with desegregation and continuing with such factors as teacher unionization, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and special education, among others. As a result, educators and multiple other actors have defined and understood the role of the “school district” in strikingly different and distinct ways throughout the century.My analysis focuses on the evolution of school districts in the mid-to-latedecades of the twentieth century through the development of local case studies about districtwide curriculum reforms, statewide efforts to create intermediate district units of education, and the impact of desegregation on key district instructional and administrative responsibilities. I anticipate examining districts in one or two midwestern states (Minnesota or Illinois, potentially) that undertook serious curriculum reform between the 1930s and 1970s and at districts in southern states or border states (possibly Florida, Virginia, and Missouri) that engaged in both curriculum reform and desegregation during the same period. Southern and border states are especially important to this study, because, since the Civil War, most of these school systems have utilized the county unit as the primary local education agency. St. Louis, for example, offers an intriguing case of a city that experienced nationally recognized curriculum reform during the 1920s-30s and desegregation in the 1950s-60s, all the while nested within a county system of local control.
About David Gamson

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