Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Chapter 5

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A book study: Please participate in the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Part 6 in a series of chapter summaries–book club style–by New Richmond teacher, Scott Herron, who says:

Maybe you’ve heard the now famous “blueberries story” about education. That story comes from this book. So, I have an idea. As I’m reading this, I don’t want to be the only one hearing its message which we ALL should be hearing in this current educational and political climate.

So, here’s what I’m going to do: As I read each chapter I’m going to summarize its main points and important quotes/ideas. I think once you start reading you’re going to want to hear the rest. As we go through the book, I hope it sparks discussion and, at the very least, makes you feel more understood and appreciated like it has for me. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the message of this book needs to be our central mission as we go forward at the local, state, and federal level as we take the lead in the direction of education and its reform.

You can read the rest of Scott’s proposal here.


The Flaw in the System

“Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift” –Bob Dylan

America’s school were not designed to teach all children to high levels. They were designed to select and sort young people into two groups: a small handful of thinkers and a great mass of doers according to the workplace needs of an agro-industrial society. As long as this design remains in tact, millions of teachers and administrators will struggle to deliver outcomes that the system was never designed to produce.

It started with Jefferson.

As Governor of Virginia, Jefferson considered it imperative that all children (white boys) be educated at the public’s expense, regardless of wealth or birth. At no point, however, did Jefferson contend that every child should receive the same education. He believed in a “natural aristocracy.” Borrowing from the writings of John Locke, he saw Americans divided into two distinct classes, the “laboring” and the “learned.”

He proposed a network of districts with a school within three miles of every home. Families could send their children to these schools for three years at no cost.

Children of varying ages worked together, usually in one room, progressing at their own pace through a curriculum dominated by memorizing words and poems. There was little writing or computation. Discipline was harsh. Attendance was minimal.

It may sound dreary, but Jefferson’s plan was a great leap forward on two counts. First, every eligible boy could now receive at least some basic education for free. Second, the young geniuses who managed to advance now had access to the education they needed to compete with children of position and wealth. The boys who were identified as “rubbish” ended their formal education and went to work. Girls had only one option: learn home-making from their mother.

It made no accommodation for differing learning styles, and it offered nothing to minorities or those white children whose parents either could not or would not send them to school. But from society’s perspective, the system worked.

Jefferson’s selecting model was perfectly suited to supply the requisite number of learners and laborers in proper proportion.

The chusing and raking continued largely unchanged until the end of the nineteenth century, when the first national wave of reform began. The second industrial revolution was in high gear. Every aspect of society was being remade. Factories replaced farms as the principal place of work.

Machines were designed to reduce employee discretion to a minimum. Thinking was reserved for the growing class of managers. Military style bureaucracies became the American way of work. The hours were long, conditions were brutal, but productivity soared and the economy grew at an extraordinary rate.

But in the first decades of the twentieth century, changes in social policy, particularly child labor laws, brought millions of new students into the schools and kept them there for longer periods of time. The average public elementary school quickly doubled and tripled in size. High school enrollment, long considered a luxury, also exploded as it became clear to business leaders and policymakers that some secondary education for the laboring class would increase economic output. Reformers on the left and right began to call for a major overhaul of America’s schools.

Social progressives wanted to abolish the selecting process altogether. They condemned rote learning and mindless, one-size-fits-all teaching. They endorsed “student-centered” methods of instruction with “experience-based” curricula; they saw public school as a place not only to teach the basics, but to mold the individual and promote social justice. But they were opposed and eventually overwhelmed by a coalition of “administrative reformers” who advanced a very different agenda.

These men didn’t want to replace the selecting process; they wanted to improve it. They wanted to expedite the selecting process. They sought to systematize and consolidate America’s loose network of “common schools” so that they could be more centrally controlled and professionally managed. Unfolding the full potential of every child was neither necessary nor practical, and it was definitely not on their agenda.

This movement was epitomized by a panel of university presidents called the Committee of Ten. The group came together in 1891 to focus on “the general subject of uniformity in school programmes, and on requirements for admission to college.” It established not only which subjects should be taught, but when they should be taught, in what order, and for how long. Like Jefferson, the Committee divided America’s students into two groups: the “academic” (those going on to college) and the “terminal” (everyone else). The Committee’s labels were explicit; they became part of the language of school. And once applied to a child, the label was exposed for every classmate, every teacher, and every parent to see.

A decade later, the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching standardized the school day — down to the minute — including the exact time of each class and the number of “Carnegie Units” awarded for each subject. It was this rigid structuring of time that cast the selecting process in stone.

By the 1930s, the concept of schools-as-factories had become a powerful organizing metaphor. Public schools adopted the architecture, language, and methods of the factory. Fredrick Taylor’s theories of “scientific management” swept the system — one of the first examples of the “people problem” approach to school reform. Corporate-style boards of education were created to manage “rationalized accounting systems” and “standardized operating procedures.” Administrators, especially superintendents, were charged with the dual responsibilities of raising educational standards while increasing organizational efficiency. Financial considerations became entwined with educational considerations. As in the factory, worker discretion and control were discouraged as “teaching machines” and “teacher proof” instructional materials flooded the schools.

Curriculum was broken into discrete, deconstextualized units of knowledge taught by teachers who were given no time or incentive to collaborate. America’s students were treated as raw material sliding along an assembly line at the sound of a bell. They were sequestered from the real world and isolated in classrooms where a tolerance for boredom was cultivated. They were “tracked” and prepared to “adjust to life” according to their anticipated status as thinkers or doers in the two-tiered world of work. This expectation of “graduating with your class” introduced the concept of failure into the education process along with its debilitating social stigma.

Of all the reforms that streamlined the system, nothing advanced the cause of sorting efficiency as much as they introduction of the standardized test.

Administrative reformers, however, saw the test in broader terms. They perceived its potential not as a diagnostic tool, but as a way to establish an individual’s overall level of intelligence. (It’s interesting to note that the earliest promoters were also champions of eugenics.) An orgy of standardized, norm-referenced, machine-scored testing soon engulfed the nation’s schools. In an historical blink, the results that Binet used to forecast a child’s likely performance in school, now announced to the world what the child’s potential was in life.

By the end of World War II, the industrialization of education was complete. Racial inequality was rampant. Student tracking was strongly influenced by a child’s socioeconomic status. The rigid adherence to schedules, the narrow, decontextualized curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and testing resulted in a tremendous waste of human potential. America’s political leaders created social safety nets to minimize the economic instabilities inherent in capitalism, and unions fought to ensure that workers benefited from the unprecedented rise in productivity.

And as long as productivity and standards of lining continued to soar, there was no practical reason to change.

The symbiotic relationship between our schools and the workplace is broken. Every year, our educators teach more children in more subjects to higher levels than ever before, and, every year, millions leave school with nowhere to go.

AMAZON SITE: If you want to get the book, you can go to



  1. The Committee of Ten did something else interesting, I believe. They listed the classes to teach alphabetically, and we still teach in that order even if it may not make sense. I think this is like the seven period day– it’s a factory model that should be long gone by now. We keep it because that’s the way it has been done not because it makes sense for learning. When I was in an organizational theory class at the doctoral level, this was discussed. It’s sad that the system is so ingrained that the people who care and know better can’t change. It may be sadder yet that many don’t want to. I did teach in a district that went to a block schedule and integrated classes; that was a start. I only left believing other schools would follow simply because it made sense. Guess I was wrong.

  2. Gail Crossley says:

    It was very interesting to see that in spite of all the “reforms” that have taken place in the field of education, the institution has remained at its core largely unchanged for centuries.