As educational historian Diane Ravitch notes, “the public schools employed the tests to predict which students were likely to go to college and which should be guided into vocational programs.” However, “the decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since only those in the college track took the courses that would prepare them for college.”
To Progressive educators, the IQ tests provided the cutting edge of a scientific approach to proper schooling and gave the imprimatur of science to those reformers who sought to push millions of students away from academic education and into vocational training.
Related to this, shortly after World War I, several Progressives created the field known as “Curriculum Studies.”
John Franklin Bobbitt at the University of Chicago (and others elsewhere) held that curriculum design was a complex field that could be mastered only by experts who were fluent in the new scientific approach to education.
Prior to World War I, a school’s curriculum had been designed by community school boards and educators who knew the local parents and their expectations. At the time, almost all towns and neighborhoods desired their children to learn “reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and nature studies in the common [elementary] schools, and they wanted the high schools to teach Latin, a modern foreign language or two, mathematics, literature, grammar, the sciences, ancient history, English history, American history, drawing, [and] music.” This was what parents generally demanded, and this was what the schools provided.
No more, proclaimed Bobbitt and his peers. Local school board members, teachers, and parents had not studied the literature of the new science of education. They were not conversant with the rationale or the methods or the outcomes of IQ testing, and they were clueless regarding techniques for determining children’s future professions and assigning them to the educational track congruent with their intellectual capacities. They were, therefore, as unqualified to design an educational curriculum as they were to critique Einstein’s theory of relativity; both were jobs for trained experts. As Ravitch writes:
The invention of the scientific curriculum expert represented an extraordinary shift in power away from teachers, parents, and local communities to professional experts. . . . In modern school districts, control over curriculum was transferred from educators who had majored in English, history, or mathematics to trained curriculum specialists.
What was the ultimate goal? What were these so-called scientists trying to accomplish?
Bobbitt and his peers conceived of curriculum designers as educational engineers who could establish the exact criteria for each child’s proper functioning and the optimum profession in which he or she might bring about “social progress.” The aim was utilitarian advantage to “society.”
For example, “if agricultural production falls off … the schools must provide better agricultural education. If factory production is inefficient, the schools must teach industrial education. When studies show the cost of ill health, the schools must provide health education.” And so on for any number of other “practical” activities, including driving techniques and military training. Students would learn the specific skills necessary to their “proper” professions and useful to “society.”