How Jefferson’s ideal of personal learning was sacrificed to political interest groups

The factory-education model puts America’s future increasingly at risk

Steven Miller

New research indicates that genuine learning — as opposed to mere completion of school classes or graduation percentiles — will soon be the make-or-break factor in states’ competition for the world’s R&D dollars.

That could be bad news for Southern Nevada, given its anachronistic factory-model public-school system where administrators and bureaucrats reign supreme and teachers and teaching are subordinated.

Reality closing in

What is different now is that around the world in the last three decades empirical research on the relationship between human capital, productivity and growth has turned an important corner.

That relationship — long a subject of immense interest to investors at the cutting edge of development —until recently continued to be examined through statistics on school enrollment or level of schooling attained.

Now, however, researchers increasingly have access to data that reveals the actual knowledge and skills that individuals have acquired, regardless of ostensible credentials.

An important step down this road occurred in 2008. Then, a study by Erik Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann found that the ability of human capital to explain variation in countries’ GDP growth per capita rises dramatically when the old metric, of average years of schooling, was replaced by countries’ average test scores.

The new metric

Building on that work, two European researchers at Maastricht University, Netherlands, and the IZA Labor Institute in Bonn, Germany have combined other research to provide a new metric of “sectoral human capital” — defined as the average cognitive skills of the workforce in each country-sector combination.

Testing that metric empirically, Simone Sasso and Jo Ritzen were able to report that “for the first time, a measure of the average sectoral cognitive skills” is available as an additional “factor for human capital, next to the traditional measures of fixed capital, labour stocks, and R&D investments.”

Moreover, they say, this measure of the actual skills that a given region’s people have learned and developed may well describe the central determinant of any region’s long-run economic growth.

In part the metric’s importance reflects the fact that, while many countries have experienced significant increases in their ostensible and reported education-attainment credentials, “large shares” of those populations, write Sasso and Ritzen, “have weak cognitive skills.”

Illiterates with diplomas

“Paradoxically,” they continue, “some of the countries with the highest proportions of tertiary [post-secondary] educated people have, at the same time, very high shares of innumerate or illiterate men and women.

“The United States is a clear example. Even if the proportion of the population with tertiary education is significantly higher than the average of other developed economies (i.e. 45% against, on average, 35% in OECD economies), also the percentage of those who are innumerate is much higher (9.1% in the US against, on average 5% in OECD countries).”

Here, the two European researchers highlighted what in America is more frequently discussed under the headings of grade and credential “inflation.”

The scholars’ framing of the issue, however, has more merit than U.S. public education’s reflexive soft-pedaling of this and its other systemic problems. Inadvertently, the researchers are highlighting the real-world seriousness of our situation.

The hidden history of public schools

Actual learning has always been the Achilles heel of U.S. public education — no matter how many youths get processed through the factory schools and are allowed, some June afternoon, to wear mortar boards.

At some level, Americans have always sensed this.

Throughout the 20th century, as Diane Ravitch documented in detail in her 555-page book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, American public schools have been the focus of intense argument.

“Some think the schools should go ‘back to basics,’” she wrote, “others insist that the schools should break free of the basics.”

“Some want higher standards; others want schools where students pursue their own interests without any external pressures. Some think that the schools must liberate themselves from the dead hand of traditions, others that the schools are plagued by too many faddish reforms.”

Moreover, she concludes, it’s impossible to find a period within that century when “education reformers, parents, and the citizenry were satisfied with the schools.”

The overriding reality of human individuality

The reason for this, of course, was and remains quite simple: People — individuals — differ, and thus by nature, have different goals and interests.

Nevertheless, American politicians, beginning with Horace Mann in mid-19th century Massachusetts and hordes thereafter, have always been eager to override such individual preferences, even though precisely those individual interests constitute the most vital and potent engines for genuine learning.

So, indifferent to individual family preferences, states increasingly embarked upon campaigns to capture and control youth education.

Initially it was the youth of primarily conservative Christian denominations that Mann and his Unitarian and Prussia-influenced allies targeted with laws making attendance compulsory at state-run “common schools.”

As Charles L. Glenn’s watershed book, The Myth of the Common School, documents in detail, “The primary goal of the common school crusade was to form the hearts of the next generation, to assure that they would, in the words of a leading Congregationalist journal, grow up ‘with the state, of the state and for the state.’”

Next in the crosshairs of Mann and other religion-oriented collectivists were the youth of largely Catholic immigrant families, as fear of “Papism” swept primarily-Protestant America and became a national movement.

After the U.S. Senate narrowly failed in 1875 to pass the Blaine Amendment, 38 states nevertheless carved their own versions of the law into their constitutions, outlawing any state aid to “sectarian” schools — “sectarian” understood to mean schools other than the already-established and Protestant-consensus tax-supported schools.

The politicians grab the schools

Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of universal education had never intended government — federal or state — to certify who could or could not operate schools. But as compulsory school attendance laws spread and collectivist passions of varying sorts washed through American politics, government control of schools proliferated also.

The next step down this road was taken by educators eager to serve the nation’s rising captains of industry. Those industrialists — having observed the increasing state takeovers of youth education in service to special interests — knew a particular interest they’d like it to serve: their own.

Prior to the widespread industrialization before and after the end of the 19th century, notes Professor Linda McSpadden McNeil, “students attended school long enough to learn what they needed for personal purposes.” (Emphasis added.)

While having school-supplied skills (geography, accounting, literacy) might help a young person find an apprenticeship [McNeil continues], there was no notion of going to school in order to get a job or be trained for one, or to obtain a certificate of attendance. The school was no more influential in teaching skills and information than the family, workplace and perhaps the church.

The rhetoric of the Jeffersonian ideal of educating all citizens persists in our claim to want to give every child a chance to be educated; it draws teachers into teaching and gives students expectations that school knowledge will have something to teach them. Even though the mandate Jefferson posed for an education critical of government and other institutions rarely finds an articulate voice among school practitioners, the mandate for universal education is still very much with us.

The corruption of Jefferson’s ideal

McNeil — director of Rice University’s Center for Education — notes the irony that, so widely has Jefferson’s ideal of universal education been embraced, it has helped spawn a massive and highly regimented public-ed establishment of which the libertarian Jefferson almost certainly would never approve:

The idea that education could free a person to shape his or her own destiny was turned on its head as industrialists around the turn of the century looked to schools to supply them with labor for their expanding factories. Their desire to control schooling went beyond wanting to socialize students into a particular set of values. These industrialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wanted schools to help control the labor supply.

As McNeil, like other researchers, recounts, multiple factors converged to bring schools in line with the industrialists “controlling purposes” and allowed industries to shift to taxpayers many “costs of sorting, selecting and tracking future workers.”

By the era of the Great Depression, however, in another irony, industry began learning that the form of public education it had helped engineer was actually turning out to be an increasingly significant obstacle to American industry’s ability to compete internationally.

That form and organizational model — a retread of industry’s early 20th century “rational management” dogmas — actually inhibits learning and skill development.

Says McNeil:

The foundations of our school organization are today anachronistic. What is called a decline in quality of education is actually a crisis in the legitimacy of school practices. This includes both the educational and social control practices and their relative imbalance. During the years of secondary school expansion, when increased immigration and expanding industrialization placed on schools the cost of training and sorting workers, the credential provided by schooling came to dominate school practice.

In crisis: the high-school credential

She notes that while more and more students obtained credentials of completed schooling, a series of recessions meant that too few jobs of the sort the schools had trained the youth for were available. “Thus,” she says, “the credential itself came into crisis.”

Having displaced and devalued the substance of education in exchange for anticipated economic benefit, the credential became a questionable commodity. Having contributed to the crisis of credibility for school knowledge, the credential itself began to lose credibility.

Students of the past few years have begun to doubt that there will necessarily be a pay-off for all their years of school. They know the credential will not be sufficient for job entry or college, yet they know that the stiff competition in shrinking labor markets means that it is nevertheless still necessary. This lack of confidence in the value of the credential makes benefits of schooling all the more suspect because of students’ increasingly low expectations that school knowledge has much worth.

McNeil documents her allegations in two different books: Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge and Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing.

They detail her multiple studies of different schools, her observations of their classrooms and her in-depth interviews with those schools’ teachers and students. Getting the kids out the door with credential in hand has become, overwhelmingly, the top priority in America’s administrator-run public education.

Students see administrators’ real priorities

Learning itself comes in decidedly second — and, McNeil makes clear, students see that:

They have long suspected the quality and validity of course content, reduced as it was to forms readily transmitted and evaluated within the reward structure of the school, often trivialized and rendered lifeless by being turned into “school knowledge.”

Their assessment of course content challenges the success of our meeting the educational goals of our school legacy. And their lack of confidence in the school credential calls into question the emphasis our schools have placed on controlling and processing students through requirements aimed at obtaining that credential, controlling processes which de-emphasized learning and content in favor of meeting institutional standards of attendance and minimum grades. (Emphasis added.)

For thousands of teachers, McNeil’s detailed studies will ring all too true.

The choice: Learning or Processing?

Clearly, American public education needs a significantly more vital relationship with genuine learning.

An obvious place to start — which many educators would heartily support — would be to begin abandoning the current model of public education, with its privileging of the administrator mindset over that of teaching.

Indeed, take seriously the superior energy, desire and accountability for real learning that becomes available when parents are allowed to tailor their child’s education experience to his or her unique needs.

The education-savings-account idea not only can meet the individual needs of students wherever they are on the achievement spectrum.

It is also Nevada’s best chance of developing a skilled, intelligent and internationally competitive work force.


Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.

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