Earlier I asked what the realization of America's historic, nineteenth-century ideal of the common school would mean, in the conditions of the twenty-first century. Given the student composition of urban schools today, to take this ideal seriously is to embrace a vision of social transformation, a vision that requires faith that today's reform situation is connected to, not distinct from, longer-term trends in American educational and social history.
What are some of these trends? Lawrence A. Cremin, author of the standard multi-volume history of American education, identifies “three abiding characteristics of American education . . . popularization, the tendency to make education . . . increasingly accessible to diverse peoples; . . . multitudinousness, the proliferation . . . of institutions to provide . . . that increasing accessibility; and . . . politicization, the effort to solve certain social problems indirectly through education rather than directly through politics.” 1
Patricia Albjerg Graham reminds us that, “Traditionally, Americans have considered their schools as mechanisms for improving society. What society has been either unable or unwilling to undertake with its adults, it has expected the schools to accomplish with its children. As the nation's priorities have shifted during this century, so, too, have the goals of the schools.” 2
Basic urban issues like desegregation, bilingual education, and special needs, for instance, can be seen as examples of popularization, for they arise from legislation which extended access to new groups of students. Desegregation is clearly an example of the use of schools as a “mechanism for improving society.” Events such as California's recent retreat from bilingual