Bio for William Reese



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William Reese

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William Reese

Carl F Kaestle WARF Professor
Educational Policy Studies (EPS)

Carl F Kaestle WARF Professor
Educational Policy Studies (EPS)

221 Education Building  binoculars icon
1000 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706-1326
Office: 608/262-2812

Curriculum Vitae

Personal Biography

William J. Reese is the Carl F. Kaestle WARF Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a member of the National Academy of Education, and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. He teaches courses on the undergraduate and graduate levels on the history of American education and the history of childhood and adolescence. His books include Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grassroots Movements during the Progressive Era, The Origins of the American High School, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to ‘No Child Left Behind,’ History, Education, and the Schools, a co-edited volume entitled Rethinking the History of American Education, and Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History. Current research projects include the history of the public schools of Washington, D.C., and the history of child prodigies.

Scheduled Teaching

  • Spring 2016 - Seminar- American History 1900-1945
    Course Number: 940
    Course Syllabus
  • Fall 2015 - EPS 906/History 906: History of School Reform
    Course Level: Graduate
    Course Syllabus

Research Interests

Over the last few years, my research has continued to focus on different aspects of the history of public school reform and educational policy. Projects have ranged across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and led to a variety of articles and a few books, most recently Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History (2013). My current research focuses on two very different topics: the history of childhood and childhood prodigies in the nineteenth century, and the history of Washington, D.C.’s public schools from their origins to the recent past.


  • Reese, W.J. (2013, April (2nd Quarter/Spring) 21). The First Race to the Top. Sunday Review, The New York Times, 8.
    Online Publication/Abstract
    Abstract: FOR the nearly 50 million students enrolled in America’s public schools, tests are everywhere, whether prepared by classroom teachers or by the ubiquitous testing industry. Central to school accountability, they assume familiar shapes and forms. Multiple choice. Essay. Aptitude. Achievement. NAEP, ACT, SAT. To teachers everywhere, the message is clear: Raise test scores. No excuses. The stakes are very high, as the many cheating scandals unfolding nationally reveal, including most spectacularly the recent indictment of 35 educators in Atlanta. But we should also be wondering, where did all this begin? It turns out that the race to the top has a lot of history behind it.
  • Reese, W.J. (2013). Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History. Harvard University Press.
    Online Publication/Abstract
    Abstract: Written tests to evaluate students were a radical and controversial innovation when American educators began adopting them in the 1800s. Testing quickly became a key factor in the political battles during this period that gave birth to America’s modern public school system. William J. Reese offers a richly detailed history of an educational revolution that has so far been only partially told. Single-classroom schools were the norm throughout the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pupils demonstrated their knowledge by rote recitation of lessons and were often assessed according to criteria of behavior and discipline having little to do with academics. Convinced of the inadequacy of this system, the reformer Horace Mann and allies on the Boston School Committee crafted America’s first written exam and administered it as a surprise in local schools in 1845. The embarrassingly poor results became front-page news and led to the first serious consideration of tests as a useful pedagogic tool and objective measure of student achievement. A generation after Mann’s experiment, testing had become widespread. Despite critics’ ongoing claims that exams narrowed the curriculum, ruined children’s health, and turned teachers into automatons, once tests took root in American schools their legitimacy was never seriously challenged. Testing Wars in the Public Schools puts contemporary battles over scholastic standards and benchmarks into perspective by showcasing the historic successes and limitations of the pencil-and-paper exam.
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