Counting the Origins of Failure

Originally published at Change.or on 2009-07-13 00:05:00 UTC

If education in the United States of the 21st Century is failing, that failure has been built over a very long time. And I do not think that it can be “fixed” in any meaningful way unless people understand that the failures we see today are our system working exactly as it was intended to.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Our American public education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is separating “winners” from “losers” and it is reinforcing our economic gap. The system was designed in the 1840s and at the turn of the 20th Century to separate society into a vast majority of minimally trained industrial workers and a small, educated elite. It was designed to enforce White, Protestant, Middle-Class, “Typically-abled” standards on an increasingly diverse American population. A few blessed children in each generation who met those standards might move up in society. The rest would be consigned to low wage manual labor. It was designed to ensure that the children of the elites had the opportunities they needed to remain the elite. Everything about the system – from the way schools are funded, to the way standards are created, to the system of tests, to our peculiar form of college admissions, to our notions of disability – was created to meet the employment goals of the United States from the mid 19th Century to the mid 20th Century.

Unfortunately we are 50 years past that historic moment, and we are no longer happy with the results.
But if you want different results you will not get there through changing teachers, or changing managers, or expecting more from students. You can only change the results by changing the system itself.

That means changing everything, from the buildings to the timetable, from the calendar to the notion of age-based grades, from the idea of classroom competition to the furniture, from the accepted sense of “paying attention” to the purpose of teachers. All of that contributes to the “failures” we see today because all of that was designed from the start to create those failures.

The design
American education was largely designed in two bursts of change. In the 20 years before the American Civil War writers such as William Alcott and Henry Barnard largely defined the classroom and the school. Alcott swapped out benches and long tables for desks and chairs with backs, and introduced reluctant American teachers to the newest information technology – the chalkboard and individual student slateboard. Barnard, jumping on the “Prussian Model” bandwagon (industrializing America was deeply enamored at the time of all the efficiency ideas coming from Berlin, including school* and university design), designed the multi-classroom school building for the new idea of age-based grades. He told teachers to put the alphabet charts above those new chalkboards, to put the flag to “stage right” of the teacher’s desk, and pointed out that the design of the school’s grounds, entrances, and corridors, should control student behavior.

In the 20 years beginning in 1890, the systems of the 1840s were made efficient. Now there were not just age-based grades but discrete subjects. Not just days in school but specific moments devoted to single subjects. Not just assessments but state-wide tests which enforced classroom conformity. American education was no longer viewed as craft or social responsibility, but as one more example of mass production.

Age-based grades were the perfect fit for the new industrial age. The raw material (students) would be pulled in at one end, and through repeated “stampings” would emerge eight years later as compliant workers and citizens. Quality checks at the end of each year would assess whether that raw material was defective or not. If detective, a stamping would be repeated, if that did not work, the student would be discarded. This filtered the population effectively for the employment needs of the 19th Century. Most never made it through the whole process, and very, very few would emerge at the end of eight years considered ready for further polishing (high school completion was rare well into the 20th Century). Premium “raw materials” – the children of the elite – were obviously not treated this way. They were hand-formed by tutors or the teachers at private academies. This assured that the American aristocracy would maintain their position.
The One-Room-Schoolhouse. Multi-age, largely student-directed,
it began as a democratic institution grounded in choice.
We’re still there

This theory of education, as the equivalent of industrial processing, remains dominant. Everything about “accountability” – the chant of both the left and the right these days, is based in this. Yes, it has always been controversial. Many in 19th Century America resisted giving up the “One Room Schoolhouse” with its multiage grouping of students, its individualized instruction, its peer-to-peer instruction, and its acceptance of students who entered at any point and moved at their own pace. And before the Reagan era washed in a new age of educational conservatism, many public schools were experimenting with less emphasis on age as the determiner of what should be learned. But if any experiments survived Reagan, No Child Left Behind, with its insistence that every student learn at the exact same rate, cemented the industrial process legally as national policy.

And this is the source of most of our failure. Age-based grades and the industrial model ensure that in every classroom, at least one-third of students will be bored, and one-third will be behind. Age-based grades create disabilities, by insisting that there is a “norm” for every age, and labeling those not “there” yet with pathological descriptions. Call it whatever euphemism you desire, but the idea is always “retardation” – by very definition. Age-based grades – by creating rigid “norms” – damage those from differing ethnic groups and cultures. Age-based grades destroy those entering school from below middle-class backgrounds, since we are all well aware that poverty is the number one predictor of “starting behind” – and if you start behind, even if all schools were equal, age-based grades all but guarantee that you will fail at every step.

And every “grade level expectation” published by every state, and every achievement test, reinforces this system of failure.

So we continue to stamp, and we continue to filter. Oh, we’ve put in many more inspection points, and we’ve put in many more stages of remedial processing, but nothing has changed. And when the failure inevitably occurs, we do what every industrial manager does, we blame the raw material (“our students are not prepared for school”) or we blame the industrial workers (“the problem,” as Bill Gates, Sr. put it on NPR, “is the teachers.”).

America needs to decideOur complaint now, wrongly, whether the education secretary is appointed by a right-wing ideologue like George W. Bush or a liberal former community organizer like Barack Obama, is a complaint about a system which we think does not work well enough. If you believe that then you will look at management (Charter Schools), or inspection (high-stakes testing), or replacing workers with industrial robots (scripted instruction, Teach for America).

The problem is that the system is doing what it was designed to do: sending the children of our elite to Ivy League universities and sending the children of our poor out to the streets. We see it as a “problem” only because the employment profile has changed, so instead of dumping those filtered out into factories and mines, we dump them into crime and nothingness.

If we want a different result, it is the system – not the students, not the teachers – not even really the management – which must change. These groups, after all, are just humans, humans responding to the system they are forced to survive in.

The educational system, and all the structures created to support that system – the buildings, furniture, time schedules, tests – are the problem. Decades of tinkering with the details have not altered the results at all, because those results are a creation of the system itself. So if Americans want change, it is time for them to insist on real change.

- Ira Socol

Over the next few days I’ll be looking at the structures of this system. Please share your thoughts along the way. And many thanks to Clay Burell for this opportunity to speak to all of you at

* - "The adoption of the Prussian model required the creation of a vast hierarchical bureaucracy of administrators, which in turn led to the abandonment of the one-room schoolhouses, the consolidation of the public schools, and the strict segregation of children according to age." Hardaway, R. (1995). America Goes to School: Law, Reform, and Crisis in Public Education

1 comment:

Peter D. Mare said...

Excellent article! Also, it is worth noting that summer holidays, as described in Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, exacerbates class divisions (fossilizes them). But, there is more. Anyone who studies the English language (and compares it to other languages) they will learn that the English spelling system has the worst letter-to-sound and sound-to-letter ratios making reading (decoding) and writing (spelling) excruciatingly hard. It is my view that it is partly responsible for inefficiencies and expenses in education, failures and high illiteracy rates, learning/reading disabilities. More info? Go to