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Reviews in American History 29.2 (2001) 319-327

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In Retrospect:
David Tyack's the One Best System

Harvey Kantor

David B. Tyack. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. 353 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $19.95

Some twenty-five years ago, David B. Tyack published a path-breaking study of the history of American urban education. Drawing on other monographic studies and on previously unanalyzed empirical investigations of the character of urban education conducted in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, The One Best System offered the first comprehensive history of the organizational revolution that transformed urban education in the United States between 1870 and 1940, and it quickly became the center of intellectual discourse and the primary text in the field.

The chief theme of Tyack's book was the transformation from village school to urban system. Urban educational arrangements in the mid- nineteenth century followed a village or rural model, Tyack said. Haphazard and relatively informal, these arrangements fostered a close relationship between school and community in which the school belonged to the community not only in the legal sense but in a social one as well. As urbanization and industrial development intensified, this rural model succumbed to pressure from those who wished to make education more systematic and rational. Through a complex process of conflict and accommodation, collections of village schools were replaced by urban systems characterized by centralized forms of governance and specialized administrative structures that relied on science and professional expertise instead of local knowledge as a guide to educational practice. The result, Tyack concluded, was a more formalized, uniform system of schooling that often worked to the disadvantage of those it was supposed to serve.

This interpretation has framed a generation of subsequent research on the history of urban education. Over the last twenty-five years, educational historians have re-examined Tyack's arguments about the movement to centralize the control of urban school governance, the rise of professionalism in urban school administration, the feminization of teaching and its relationship [End Page 319] to the early history of teacher unions, and the struggles of African Americans, southeastern European immigrants, and other dispossessed groups to make urban schools and urban school bureaucracies more responsive to the educational needs of children. Much as Tyack anticipated, many of these studies have questioned his interpretations. But none of them have replaced his main argument. Today, The One Best System remains the most influential study of the changes in institutional structures and ideology that have shaped the history of urban education since the late nineteenth century.

No doubt part of the reason for this is that the book is written with a grace and elegance that is rare among scholarly work. As a result, it is accessible to a broad range of readers, specialists and nonspecialists alike. But Tyack's writing style is only part of the explanation for the book's continuing influence. To more fully understand why The One Best System remains the one best book about the history of urban education and why it is still the most widely consulted text in the field, we must look beyond matters of style to consider the nature of its contribution to the historiography of American education and why its account of the organizational revolution that transformed urban education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continues to be relevant to discussions about school reform today.

One useful way to begin thinking about these questions is to situate The One Best System in relation to other recent studies that have also significantly shaped research in the field. Since the 1960s, there have been several superb books on the history of American education. But few have made a comparable impact with the notable exception of Michael B. Katz's study of educational innovation in mid-nineteenth-century Massachusetts, The Irony of Early School Reform (1968). This book turned upside down the standard wisdom about the history of school reform. Whatever the eventual...


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