25 September 2010

Designed to Fail - Education in America: Part One

part two    part three    part four    part five 
"Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products. . . manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry." - Elwood Cubberley's dissertation 1905, Teachers College, Columbia University

"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." - Woodrow Wilson
In a time when our experts in education range from the operator of a software company, to a talk show host, to a Chicago businessman of no great success, to a woman from a wealthy family who went to an Ivy League school and met powerful friends, it is important to understand what the educational system in the United States was designed to do, and why it was designed to do that.

In the beginning there were two voices. As the 1840s began, a period when information and communications would revolutionize American society (the railroad, the telegraph, the steam-powered rotary printing press, machine made paper, penny newspapers with mass circulations, steamships), William Alcott and Horace Mann were the two people talking to the young United States about school.

Alcott, author of Confessions of a School Master (1839), was a close observer of students and children. He watched students and teachers and saw what was working for them, what made them uncomfortable, what seemed to make learning go, and what seemed to block it. In the 1830s and 1840s Alcott would re-design the American schoolroom, replacing benches and tables (where children squirmed and fatigued because they could not sit back) with desks and chairs, and he would blow apart the instructional model in use by bringing the "Black Board" and slate into the room, changing the presentation scheme and allowing students to make and correct mistakes.

Alcott saw student needs as central - "That the general arrangement and appearance of even inanimate things around us, have an extensive influence in forming our character, will hardly be questioned. Every object, and every individual we see, either renders us more cheerful and happy, or the contrary. The condition of those objects, therefore, which surround a collection of children, whether the number of those children be five, fifty, or one hundred, must of necessity have a very considerable influence in forming their dispositions, and giving a determination to their future character," he wrote in an 1831 essay on school design.  "Even the slate, if it were at their command continually, would become tiresome. To sit still, at times—entirely still—if not continued too long, is one form of doing something ; and I consider it as much a part of the teacher's duty to form his pupils to the habit of sitting still, as to teach them spelling and reading. Not of course an hour at a time, or half an hour, or a quarter, even. To some children, five minutes would be long enough; and to most, ten minutes would he the full extent of what would be useful," he  added in his book Slate and Black Board Exercises (pg. 11) - because he was working with a view from the ground.

Horace Mann, social reformer and historically proclaimed, "father of the American public school," looked at education from a different vantage point.

Mann looked down from heaven and saw a nation, and a human race, in need of perfection. I like Horace Mann, he's an incredibly eloquent believer in the potential of our children, and our potential to be "better."
“Had God, then, provided no means by which this part of our nature can be controlled, we should indeed say, that we had been lifted up to heaven in point of privileges, that we might, so much the more certainly, be dashed in pieces by our inevitable fall. But we have not been inexorably subjected to such a doom. If it befalls us, it befalls us with our own consent. Means of escape are vouchsafed; and not of escape only, but of infinite peace and joy.

“The world is to be rescued through physical, intellectual, moral and religious action upon the young.” - Horace Mann,  What God Does, and What He Leaves for Man to Do, in the Work of Education (1840) 

Mann saw education from that vast societal view. It was charitable, and of course, missionary in style and substance. He would bring education to all in America in an attempt to correct the social problems of the generations which separated post-revolutionary America from perfection. Yet he remains a humanist, a believer in human agency: "But it is not every child, nor even a majority of children, who, with any propriety, can be compared to mechanical structures, or to those pliant and ductile materials that are wrought into beautiful forms by the skill of the artisan. Children formed in the prodigality of nature, gifted to exert strong influences upon the race, are not passive; —they are endued with vital and efficient forces of their own. Their capacious and fervid souls were created to melt and re-cast opinions, codes, communities, as crude ores are melted and purified in the furnace. To the sensitive and resilient natures of such children, an ungentle touch is a sting; a hot word is a living coal," he says in that early lecture.

Mann is the successor to Jefferson on schools. He is the person who begins to convince the United States that education must be both a birthright and a societal commitment. Yet, almost as soon as he begins to move about the nation lecturing, another voice appears - that of Henry Barnard

Before Barnard saw schools as a path to fame and eventual fortune, he was a mercantile-oriented state legislator in Rhode Island with no interest in education. And yet before the 1840s would end he had seized the Public School Movement from Mann and had twisted that father of public education's words into something quite different. In the end Horace Mann became the Geoffrey Canada of the 19th Century. A man who set out to make a real difference, but whose image ended up licensed to people with an entirely different agenda.

Barnard, like Mann, looked at schools, education, and childhood from 'way above.' But his was not the view from heaven of Horace Mann. Rather, his view was from the banker's office and the factory foreman's post, and the mine supervisor.

At first, he sounds a bit like Mann - without the learning. "The primary object in securing the early school attendance of children, is not so much their intellectual culture, as the regulation of the feelings and dispositions, the extirpation of vicious propensities, the pre-occupation of the wildeiness of the young heart with the seeds and germs of moral beauty, and the formation of a lovely and virtuous character by the habitual practice of cleanliness, delicacy, refinement, good temper, gentleness, kindness, justice and truth." But quickly the purposes behind this desired docility are apparent. "By means of such schools, the defective education of many of the youth of our manufacturing population would be remedied, and their various trades and employments be converted into the most efficient instruments of self-culture."

In Barnard's world education was training, not learning. And in pursuit of this he imports the Prussian Model of education to simulate the assembly-line (recently appearing in the gun factories of his native New England) with age-based grades. He introduces rigid time schedules to schools in order to prepare the students for the emerging shift-work of textile mills. He also pushed to lower teacher pay (through replacing male teachers with women) and status, and to standardize both school buildings and instruction. (Mann had brought a dualism to the "women teacher issue" - "That females are better fitted by nature than males to train and educate young children is a position, which the public mind is fast maturing into an axiom. With economical habits in regard to all school expenditures, it is a material fact, that the services of females can be commanded for half the price usually paid to males. But what is of far higher moment is, that they are endowed by nature with a stronger affection for children; they have quicker sympathies, livelier sensibilities, and more vivid and enduring parental instincts." - Common School Journal (Boston), vol. 1, no. 6 (March 15, 1839), p. 85 - Barnard would use Mann's words while emphasizing the savings and ensuring that women never held decision-making positions within the system.)

Why this matters

From this beginning with see two fundamentally different ways of viewing the purpose of education, or, perhaps, two and a half. And these visions persist today and explain our current battles over schools.

This weekend this exchange appeared among friends of mine on Twitter:
"Spent last night with cousins, three of whom are teachers - never heard of KIPP, Rhee, or Waiting for Superman. Surprising conversation." Karen Janowski on Twitter

"@KarenJan doesn't surprise me one bit. The vast majority of teachers, for better or worse, are blindly focused on their classroom and kids." Jonathan Becker on Twitter
Teachers, and most teacher educators, are, as Dr. Becker says, "blindly focused on their classroom and kids." From Linda Darling-Hammond to Lisa Parisi, Dan McGuire, Patrick Shuler, Punya Mishra, Pam Moran, Dave Britten, Dave Doty, and tens of thousands more, are working with students every day, trying to make the changes we can in the lives and learning of our students. "We" are the William Alcotts of today, the Maria Montessoris of today.

At the other end are today's Henry Barnards (or Andrew Carnegies). Those building careers or reputations by making education work for American capitalism. Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad - they look down from corporate suites and see that education is not producing the kinds of compliant worker/citizens their businesses need. These are education's industrialists, with absolutely no sense that a student is different than any other industrially processed part, and no sense that a teacher is any different than any industrial worker. For this group, education is measured as industrial processing is measured, parts (students) which are not successfully processed in any industrial step (grade) are re-processed (retained), and unions for the line workers (teachers) interfere with cost structure.

These two groups cannot conceivably understand each other because they simply do not see the same thing when they look at "school."

That half step - Horace Mann or Geoffrey Canada or Cory Booker or African-American leaders who sign-on with the industrialists - are the missionaries. Their heavenly view, however well meaning, plays into the industrialists hands, giving moral cover to brutal capitalism.

And brutal it is. We cannot really understand why American schools use age-based grades and standardized tests, and why two-thirds of students do badly - consistently - unless we understand why Barnard and his successors built the system they did. Because the system they built endures, operating, as Cubberley noted, "factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products," and discarding "defective" raw materials along the way.

Next: How Barnard's system became an unchangeable institution... Part Two

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to part 2.

Carl said...


Lisa Parisi said...

Seems like we teachers have two choices....work within the system to help students succeed or fight the system and lose our jobs. Not a good choice, either way. And having our government choose people to revamp the system and not choose any educators, is a clear message that the goal is to maintain the system, not help the children.

Can't wait for part 2.

Wm Chamberlain said...

Do you think when teachers are confronted with the reason school is the way it is they will accept it or rebel? Do we simply need to educate teachers about why they teach how they teach?

Stuart Buck said...

"they look down from corporate suites and see that education is not producing the kinds of compliant worker/citizens their businesses need"

What's your evidence for this?

irasocol said...

Ah Stuart, the obsession is heartwarming...

"More broadly, the future success of the U.S. economy likely depends at least partly on our ability to raise educational attainment among disadvantaged populations. If current patterns of immigration, retirement, and educational attainment continue, the imminent retirements of “baby boomers” and their replacement by immigrants in the labor force will no doubt tend to lower the educational attainment of U.S. workers.3 With such a work- force, U.S. employers would have greater difficulty finding and paying for skilled workers domestically who, because of their greater relative scarcity, would now be more expensive to hire."

Which you might have found on your own by following the links:

- Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

I don't think "skilled" is a synonym for "compliant" or "brutal."

irasocol said...


If you read the above quote, or document, you would see that the Gates Foundation is primarily concerned with the cost of workers - both fiscally (they might have to pay more) or politically (they'd need increases in Visas to import foreign workers). This is a "competitiveness question.

But I am glad that you have finally discovered someone who sees you not as entitled prodigy, but as an academic who might need to defend his work. And I'm glad that I could be here for this stage of your intellectual development.

- Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

Be a little more specific: you're reading a liberal Center for American Progress report that argues in anodyne language for the improvement of community colleges, and you conclude from that something about some sinister motive on the part of Gates in his corporate suites?

Stuart Buck said...

So there's no logical connection that you can identify. Can you point to any actual evidence for your interpretation of Gates' motives?

Anonymous said...

Stuart, Even though Gates himself would never use the word "compliant" to the press, that would be insane, this doesn't mean he is not indicating such a position. The king of capitalist american can not accomplish his position without brutality and worker compliance. That we all can agree on...products do not always "win" because they are best, but because they are widely available and cheap. Why are products cheaper than other products? The simple answer is labor costs....hence the need for compliant workers, etc. etc. Think it through, use your imagination. Everything is not present at the surface.

smith4429 said...

I apologize, for I am almost 3 years too late for this discussion, but the above comment was spot on as evidence to support Ira's argument: Question the intention of those with the power to make decisions.

The last comment warned you that the truth is never on the surface, and you must hone your creativity in order to see the truth.

Once you see the truth as its really is, then you must ask yourself: Which view of education do I encourage?

The answer will define the potential of our society