Book Review of Schooling America by Patricia Graham

Book Review of Schooling America by Patricia Graham

By Timothy Dohrer

Book Review of Schooling America by Patricia Graham 

Graham, P. (2005). Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs. New York, NY: Oxford.

What is immediately likeable about Patricia Graham’s education history book Schooling America is also what makes it incredible readable. Graham inserts a little of her own family history and experience as educators, offering us primary source examples that illustrate the historical context of the times. Graham herself is an important educator, having taught in public school, a professor of history at Harvard University, and a leader of several However, this is not a personal biography. Graham sticks close to the telling of a much larger story about how schools and education developed in the United State over the last 100 years.

Her main premise is that schools have been used as tools to address the nation’s needs. As those needs changed, so did the role of schools. She divides the text into five distinct sections chronologically, each attending to one of these needs: Assimilation, Adjustment, Access, Achievement, Autonomy to Accountability. For the most part, these divisions and labels work fairly well to represent major shifts in American society and how schools responded. For example, there is no doubt that the major educational issue of the period 1954-1983 was “access,” especially with the important Civil Rights legislation passed during this time. However, access has been important in other periods.

This is probably where Graham’s book falls down a bit as she attempts to deal with huge changes along with smaller details of educational history all within a slim volume. Educators and ideas are introduced but not explored in much depth, which feels like a list of names. I found myself wanting to hear more and also wondering why some educators receive more depth than others. In contrast, there are moments when she delves more deeply and provides us with wonderful insight and understanding about how schools developed. For example, I enjoyed learning more about Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Carlton Washburne, both important progressive educators, as well as local Chicago heroes. I also liked how she returned to these two later in the chapter and book.

Anyone looking for a short survey of American educational history should enjoy this book. It feels akin to a college survey course where the instructor clearly has more content than can fit in a few short weeks! Anyone looking for depth should probably go elsewhere or move from this book into more specific history texts. But the personalized approach Graham uses by giving us biographies of some key individuals, including those from her own family, makes this a truly enjoyable read and one that could be a starting point for anyone interested in understanding why our schools look and operate the way they do.

Contact Us

Master of Science in Education School of Education & Social Policy

618 Garrett Place
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/467-1458

Email: msedprogram@northwestern.edu