Education: Celebrating 200+ Years of Stagnation

May 21, 2017 by

Walk through the History of America to it’s Present Day and the Challenges to our Model

By Carter Braxton –


From the perspective of most people alive in 2017, the American educational system is a constant.


It is a monolith that has existed in its current form as long as any of them can remember, with a seemingly self-evident status quo preserved by a vigilant and powerful coalition of teachers’ unions and elected officials.


It wasn’t always this way.


The broad concept of schooling for children obviously pre-dates the existence of the United States.  The English brought it to the Colonies in the seventeenth century.  In fact, there are a handful of American public schools that pre-date the American Revolution that are still in operation today.  The English model (which placed more emphasis on apprenticeships and education through church and the community at large) shifted and evolved, however.


As a result, American schools in urban areas began to resemble an embryonic version of what we might think of today as elite secondary schools.  The English educational focus on public virtue and limited subjects such as Latin, the Bible, and classical literature, began to branch out over the decades to include instruction that more closely resembles what we might think of as a modern curriculum.  Eventually, there was a philosophical sea-change that turned the American educational system into what most of us know today.


But I’m jumping ahead a couple of centuries.  A more basic point is that public schools weren’t particularly widespread throughout the United States until after the Civil War.  They were concentrated mostly around industrial / population centers in the Northeast.


In the South, where the economy was much more rural and agrarian, formal education was less necessary.  And, to the extent that established families wanted their children to receive such education, they achieved that goal primarily through private tutors, not schoolhouses.


Instead, public schools didn’t truly proliferate across the South until Reconstruction.  And, of course, desegregation didn’t reach the South (and many other parts of the country) until the middle-to-latter portion of the twentieth century.


But there were two other massive shifts more germane to this discussion that shaped our educational system into the form we’ve come to accept by default.

One of them was the rise of truancy law.  As I referenced, basic education outside the home was seen as unnecessary for most children until the turn of the twentieth century.  Rather, children could be educated on an individual basis by their parents and/or through an apprenticeship.  Even among the professional classes, this was the dominant mechanism for career readiness until surprisingly recently.


That began to change in the late 1800s.  By the turn of the twentieth century, 31 states had enacted laws that made school attendance compulsory for students between the ages of 8 and 14.  You’ll note that the scope of formal, mandatory education was also much smaller then, with it beginning long after what we would call “kindergarten age” (never mind pre-K) and ending around the time that most kids today would be freshmen in high school.


This movement was pervasive to the point that, by 1918, every single state legally required students to complete elementary school.  The notion that some level of formal education was necessary had prevailed, and the breadth of what is mandatory has gradually expanded ever since.  Today, every jurisdiction requires some form of schooling (public, private, or home) until the child reaches 16, 17, or, usually, 18 years of age.


But the scope of required education hasn’t been the only major point of evolution.  Just as important, if not more so, has been the change in the character of education.


The movement known as “progressive education” began in the latter portion of the nineteenth century.  I discussed at the top about the English model of education, which focused primarily on limited subjects and was designed specifically for preparation for higher education.  As I mentioned, these schools of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were primarily for elite families, not for children whose parents worked in agriculture, trades, or even non-manual professions, for whom a university path was entirely unnecessary or undesirable.


One of the major ideas behind progressive education was to make education more egalitarian.  Part and parcel to that was to expand the curriculum to include a broader range of subjects, especially subjects and learning methods that would have more universal or practical value.


Moreover, education now specifically included components that would foster civic engagement, social responsibility, and a focus on democratic values.  One of the key figures—if not the key figure—in this movement was John Dewey.  Dewey’s conception of education was “participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.”


That rather broad statement can certainly be interpreted in a number of ways.  What was clear was that, in the wake of Dewey and the other progressive education advocates, education would no longer be limited to study of a handful of subjects that directly related to college preparation.  Progressive education would include topics that were tied to “society” as well as purely academic, collegiate pursuits.


By World War II, essentially all public education in the United States was progressive education.  As Dewey and others had wanted, education became more of a reflection of societal values than it had been even a few decades earlier.


Whatever those societal values might be at the time.


The interesting thing is that, after several major periods of change in the 1800s and early 1900s, public education has changed only superficially since.




First, there has been more top-down involvement by the federal government.  In 1953, Education was elevated to a cabinet-level department, but it was only one of several areas under the purview of the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  That changed in 1979, when President Carter established the standalone Department of Education.


While public education is still admittedly mostly controlled by state and local authorities, the rise of federal policy influence on education is unmistakable.  Some of this influence has come in the form of “optional” funding that comes with certain conditions, which helps create a more uniform and static educational structure.


Even more important than that aspect, however, is the rise of powerful teacher’s unions that have a vested interest in maintaining various elements of a status quo that no longer works as well as it did decades earlier.  The strongest of these are the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which donated well over $30,000,000 to political campaigns in 2016 alone—93 percent of which went to Democrats.


I don’t begrudge unions—or anyone—the decision to contribute to political campaigns or to try to influence policy in their direction.  However, there comes a time when politicians must be held responsible for bowing to those influences when doing so stifles innovation or attempts at improving a system that has been stagnant (or worse) for at least 30 years, perhaps 60 or 70 years.


In the case of our educational system, any deviation from the turn-of-the-century model we’re still using is met with jeers and targeted and vicious opposition by politicians, the media, and union activists.


When school systems fail, and concerned parents or elected officials wish to try something—anything—to make the system function again, activists often short-circuit any such attempts, no matter how bad things get.


Charter schools out-perform public schools dollar-for-dollar?  Doesn’t matter.  They have to be stopped.  Vouchers allow parents to remove their kids from failing schools?  That can’t be allowed to stand.  E-schools look like an idea worth pursuing?  Any deviation from the norm must be quashed.


Ohio’s community charter schools are no exception.  Charter school programs in Ohio have been attacked by progressives and union allies relentlessly.  Left-leaning activists and mainstream media outlets consistently use words like “mess” or “terrible” or even “terrifying” when describing Ohio’s charter schools, repeatedly focusing on any problems over and above the results these schools can generate.


For a big-picture example of this phenomenon, look at the nomination (and subsequent confirmation) of Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  DeVos is anathema to those who doggedly defend the educational status quo.  She’s an advocate for school choice, vouchers, charter schools, and other reforms that expand the scope of educational options beyond what we think of as “conventional.”


For those “crimes,” DeVos was treated as if she were literally, single-handedly going to destroy the American public-education system.  Even after being confirmed, merely attempting to visit a local public school was considered too heinous an act for left-wing protestors to allow.


Most public-school employees, teachers, and administrators are simply average, hard-working Americans trying to earn a living.  But, at the fringes, there is a minority that is absolutely determined to maintain the existing system, terrified of permitting any new idea—even one that might help kids, like school choice.


The reasons for the level of vitriol aren’t difficult to figure: Powerful unions with millions and millions of dollars have a vested interest in preventing any deviation from a system that preserves maximum job security for its members—no matter how broken that system may be in places.


No competition means minimal danger of schools going “out of business.”  Teachers have to worry less about performance when expectations are low an consequences are rare.  “This district just stinks,” people will say.


But no one is held accountable.


With a school-choice-style plan, a school that stinks watches as parents and students flee to better, thriving schools.  Suddenly, schools that perhaps weren’t run as effectively face empty classrooms and flagging community support.  Consequences.  Outcomes.  Accountability.


The question before us now is: Do we have the will, and the courage, to move education in new, necessary directions?  There’s no question that the “old” model still works in some cases.  I don’t dispute that for a second.


But why must it be the only model?


Why not allow parents and school districts the freedom to innovate when the alternative is clinging to a confining and often troubled scheme that dates from a time before most of us were born?


The alternative is to punish children for the hubris of adults.

Source: Education: Celebrating 200+ Years of Stagnation – 3RD Rail Politics

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