Education Opinion

Behind-the-Scenes Influences on Educational Innovation

By Douglas D. Noble — September 05, 1990 3 min read

While I applaud researchers’ tenacious skepticism regarding claims made for IBM’s ubiquitous “Writing to Read” program--the subject of Peter West’s article in your Aug. 1, 1990 issue--I decry their apparent disregard for any deeper historical understanding of such bandwagons.

In their singleminded focus on the “data,” they assume that Writing to Read is simply a program that was developed “independently” by the educational researcher John Henry Martin, bought and marketed by the corporate giant IBM, and validated “independently” by the Educational Testing Service. Such assumptions ignore the real-world collaborations typically behind such powerful institutional influences in educational innovation.

Often the diversified career of one seminal figure--a Horace Mann, John Dewey, B.F. Skinner, Francis Keppel, or John W. Gardner--serves to unite varied institutional forces to a critical mass behind an educational innovation. Such is the case with Writing to Read. The real story behind the powerful impact of Writing to Read, it turns out, is neither Mr. Martin nor IBM nor the ETS study, but rather a highly influential figure in 20th century education whose life linked all three.

This was Benjamin DeKalbe Wood of Columbia University, John Henry Martin’s lifelong mentor, the key promoter of decades of IBM excursions in education, and, as director of the Cooperative Testing Service, a cofounder of its successor, the ETS

According to a 1965 biography by Matthew Downey, published by ETS, Mr. Wood was a legendary pioneer in both educational testing and educational technology. In testing, he cut his teeth with the development of the Army intelligence tests in World War I, he played a key role in the Carnegie Foundation’s enormous influence in educational standardization and measurement, and he was instrumental in the development of both the Graduate Record Examination and the New York State Regents Examinations. His immense contribution to ETS was immortalized by the dedication in 1965 of Benjamin Wood Hall at ETS in Princeton, N.J.

As a champion of IBM in education, Mr. Wood designed the first IBM cumulative record card, sponsored the first IBM test-scoring machine, collaborated closely with IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson, and was a chief educational consultant for IBM from 1928 to 1956.

A key figure in other corporate excursions in educational technology as well, Mr. Wood’s intervention catapulted Eastman Kodak into the instructional-film market in the 1920’s, and his later explorations into the use of the typewriter for kindergarten literacy, underwritten by four major typewriter manufacturers, led those companies into education markets.

In the 1940’s, Mr. Wood’s enthusiasm for new technology led to his role as director for Macmillan of the enormously successful 24-volume Air Age Education Series of school texts, and in the 1960’s he championed and introduced to America Sir James Pitman’s phonemic alphabet, the Initial Teaching Alphabet or ITA

Writing to Read is a direct descendant of connections made by Mr. Wood, between technological and educational innovation, and between corporate agendas, on the one hand, and the educational establishment and education markets, on the other. Writing to Read inherits, more specifically, Benjamin Wood’s early use of typewriters, and his later adoption of Pitman’s augmented alphabet, for literacy training. Most importantly, John Henry Martin and Writing to Read are the beneficiaries of the substantial historical collusion, embodied in Mr. Wood’s career, between two major forces in contemporary education: IBM and ETS.

This historical sketch, I submit, gleaned from two short hours in the library, sheds far more light on the mysterious influence of Writing to Read than might any further protracted assessment of its alleged effectiveness. Throughout the history of “successful” educational technologies, from standardized testing to programmed instruction to computer-based education, effectiveness has always been beside the point.

Governors and other outside reformers of education embrace these innovations not simply because they are seduced by “creative” corporate marketing, but because such corporate enterprises carry the weight of years of legitimation by the dominant institutional forces in our national educational leadership.