The One Best System

A History of American Urban Education

David B. Tyack

Harvard University Press


The One Best System

  • Prologue
  • Part I - The One Best System in microcosm: Community and Consolidation in Rural Education
  • Part II - From Village School to Urban System: Bureacratization in the Nineteenth Century
  • Part III - The Politics of Pluralism: Nineteenth-Century Patterns
  • Part IV - Centralization and the Coporate Model: Contests for control of Urban Schools
  • Part V - Inside the System: the Character of Urban Schools
  • Epilogue

A Discussion of Best Practice

The quest to create the "One Best System" was the driving force that shaped the bureacratic system still in practice in urban schools today.

  • Would we have implemented a different system around the turn of the century given the same circumstances?
  • How do we react differently today in search of the "one best system"?
  • Is there "one best system" for public education?

David B. Tyack

"To succeed in improving the schooling of the dispossessed, educators are increasingly realizing that they need to share power over educational decision-making with representatives of urban communities they serve. that they need to find ways to teach that match the learning styles of the many ethnic groups, that they need to develop many alternatives within the system and to correct the many dysfunctions of the vast bureaucracies created by the administrative progressives" (p. 291).

"The search for the one best system has ill-served the pluralistic character of American society. Increasing bureaucratization of urban schools has often resulted in a displacement of goals and has often perpetuated position and outworn practices rather than serving the clients, the children to be taught. Despite the frequent good intentions and abundant rhetoric about “equal education opportunity,” schools have rarely taught the children of the poor effectively-and this failure has been systematic, not idiosyncratic. Talk about “keeping the schools out of politics” has often served to obscure the actual alignments of power and patterns of privilege. American have often perpetuated social injustice by blaming the victim, particularly in the case of institutionalized racism" (p. 11).

Review by Harvey Kantor

"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."

Review by Diane Ravitch

"This [one best system] movement formalized the nineteenth century educator's search for the ideal way to run a school. Out of a stubbornly egalitarian approach grew the assumption that there was a "one best system," a one best building, or chair, or curriculum. As one schoolman put it, "A good program for one city would be, in its substance . . . a good program for each other city." This attitude paved the way for national acceptance of such things as the graded school, the uniform course of study, standardized testing, homogeneous grouping, the "egg-crate school" (one teacher per classroom), and the notions that every student had to have his own desk, that principals were male and teachers female.

In a very direct sense, the-one-best-system mentality grew out of the American common school ideal, the vision of a public school which was appropriate for children from every element of the community. As Tyack documents, some groups—notably blacks—were never included in the common school, while others—notably Catholics—rejected it on principle, preferring to maintain their separate identity in their own schools.

What makes Tyack's book particularly timely is its exploration of this tension which pervades the very concept of American public education. Can there be a common school broad enough to embrace all of America's diverse minorities without trying to homogenize them? Or must each religion, each race, each ancestral group go its own way in order to preserve its integrity?"


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Kantor, H. (2001). In retrospect: David Tyack's "The One Best System". [Review of the Book

The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education]. Reviews in American

History Vol. 29, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 319-327

Ravitch, D. (1974) [Review of the book The one best system: A history of American urban

education, by D. B. Tyack]. Teachers College Record Volume 77 Number 2, 1975,

p. 294-296

Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Harvard

University Press.