The History and Results of America’s Disastrous Public School System

The earliest ancestor to our system of government-mandated schooling comes from 16th-century Germany.

Image Credit: NPS Photo by John Tobiason

~ Part I ~

While it’s almost universally understood that the American school system is underperforming, “reform,” too, is almost universally prescribed as the solution. Yet in other walks of life, bad ideas are not reformed—they are eliminated and replaced with better ones. Our school system is rarely identified as a bad idea.

The system is reflexively left alone while the methods are the bad ideas that get cycled in and out: open concept schools, multiple intelligences, project-based learning, universal design for learning, merit-based pay, vouchers, charters, and most recently, educational neuroscience. Every decade or so we are told by the pedagogic experts that they have found an answer to our school’s problems. The trouble is, they’re looking right past the problem.

Schooling Monopoly
The problem is the monopoly that schooling has gained over education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 97 percent of kids go through traditional schooling (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling), and just over 90 percent of those attend government schools. That is to say, there is basically one accepted way to educate kids today: school them.

Given the relatively poor performance of American students on international achievement tests, you would think schooling might receive a second look. Quite the opposite, actually. It is instead made mandatory, and taxpayers are forced to subsidize it. This begs the question: Why would the government continue to propagate a system that produces such questionable results? The answer lies in their motives, and their motives are best understood by reviewing a brief history of compulsory schooling.

Roots in Germany
The earliest ancestor to our system of government-mandated schooling comes from 16th-century Germany. Martin Luther was a fierce advocate for state-mandated public schooling, not because he wanted kids to become educated, but because he wanted them to become educated in the ways of Lutheranism. Luther was resourceful and understood the power of the state in his quest to reform Jews, Catholics, and other non-believers. No less significant was fellow reformist John Calvin, who also advocated heavily for forced schooling. Calvin was particularly influential among the later Puritans of New England (Rothbard, 1979).

Considering compulsory schooling has such deep roots in Germany, it should be no surprise that the precursor to our American government school system came directly from the German state of Prussia. In 1807, fresh off a humiliating defeat by the French during the War of the Fourth Coalition, the Germans instituted a series of vast, sweeping societal reforms. Key within this movement was education reform, and one of the most influential educational reformers in Germany at the time was a man named Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Like Luther before him, Fichte saw compulsory schooling as a tool to indoctrinate kids, not educate them. Fichte describes his aim for Germany’s “new education” this way:

Then, in order to define more clearly the new education which I propose, I should reply that that very recognition of, and reliance upon, free will in the pupil is the first mistake of the old system and the clear confession of its impotence and futility.

But actual education is an organic process and requires free will; this was not an attempt at education. Schools were to be factories that would churn out the type of obedient, compliant workers the state preferred. Here’s Fichte again explaining the desired interaction between teachers and students:

[Y]ou must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.

Fichte understood full well that a statist vision could most easily be realized if governments were given kids’ minds early on:

Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished … When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for more than one generation will be able to control its subjects securely without the need of armies or policemen.

If such a totalitarian vision were quietly isolated in Germany, or even Europe, it might be of very little consequence. But it would be this Prussian model of control-by-schooling that 19th-century American politicians would bring to our nation—and the one that is still with us today.

Horace Mann’s Evaluation
Referred to as the first great American advocate of public education, Horace Mann embarked on a journey to Europe in 1843 to evaluate national school systems. He toured several western European states, but Prussia left the most impressionable impact on him (see his 7th Annual

Report of the Board of Education, 1843). Once back in the United States, Mann began to lobby heavily for a taxpayer-funded government school system that largely mirrored that of Prussia’s.

Horace Mann

Mann was no ordinary, grassroots American activist; he was an extremely influential public figure. He had been a part of the Massachusetts State Legislature, he was the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and he later became a United States congressman. He had enormous reach. In short, Mann’s influence worked. His “common school movement,” as it would be known, began to spread across the Northeast, with government schooling taking root in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

By the end of the decade, all states had public schools. Unsatisfied with forcing taxpayers to fund a government school system, Massachusetts also wanted to force everyone to go. What good would an organized system of indoctrination be if people could simply ignore it? They instituted the first compulsory attendance laws in the 1850s, and neighboring states began to follow suit; by the end of the 19th century, 34 states had compulsory school laws.

By 1918, they all did. Over the decades, the number of years kids were forced to go to school slowly increased, as did the number of required school days per year. Fines and penalties would be imposed nationwide for school truancy. Within decades, the federal government passed the ESEA, which thrust the national government into education and shortly thereafter established a federal Department of Education. Mann’s vision for a truly national school system would be realized just a little over a century after his initial visits to Prussia.

Pure Intentions?
It is impossible to discuss, or even understand, the failures of our school system without understanding its origins. The motivations were not pure; they were never to educate. That need not be speculation—it is directly from the mouths of the reformers themselves. The objective was to nationalize the youth in a particular mold.

From Luther to Fichte, the idea to use the coercive power of the state to force kids into schools and indoctrinate them was clear. Horace Mann became instrumental in importing this system and helping it spread throughout the United States. Attempts to reform this system amount to an incredible waste of time and resources; discussions of reform are a waste of breath. The system is rotten at its foundation and must be abolished completely.

~ Part II ~

All across the nation, students are being prodded like cattle into classrooms, and the one-size-fits-all approach is failing them.

Image Credit: Flickr-Paige Bollman | CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

There is a popular saying that “the proof is in the pudding.” In the first part of this article set, my colleague Mike Margeson spelled out the historical roots of the American schooling system. He clearly laid out the blueprint that men like Horace Mann used to build a system that does anything but “educates.” Factor in that trillions of dollars have been spent on schooling, and it makes it even harder to justify.

A Broken System
Yet we continue to hear the “Red for Ed” crowd scream for more funding. Here in the state of Indiana, the superintendent of public education is leading an assault on the state legislature for a meager 2 percent increase in state funding. Many educators are characterizing this as a decrease in funding! In no other walk of life would we continue to pour so many resources into a failed system. If you had any doubt about this after reading Part One, let me present you with some facts.

John Taylor Gatto

In what was one of many fiery speaking engagements, the late John Taylor Gatto delivered a line that has resonated with me as I have studied the effects the public schooling system has on children. In this particular speech, Gatto was recounting the story of Jaime Escalante, the educator who successfully taught calculus at Garfield High School in Los Angeles yet was forced to resign.

As he finishes describing the trials and fate of Escalante, Gatto explains that above racism and other forms of bigotry is the embedded idea that what really occurred was a deliberate attempt to stop genuine learning. Earlier in the speech, Gatto laid out a compelling case of how and why schooling is meant to keep citizens ignorant. This success at an inner city school was not going to be tolerated by the establishment. He implored his listeners to understand the real problem and to quit “fencing with shadows.”

Flushing Money Down the Drain
So what does this mean? Throughout history, compulsory schooling has consistently been viewed as not only progressive but also in need of reform. The most common method of reform has been to throw piles of money at the problem. According to the Department of Education’s (DOE) website, the DOE spent an estimated $69.4 billion in 2017. Compare that to the initial $2.9 billion ($23 billion adjusted for inflation) budgeted under the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965.

To put this into context, education spending as a percent of gross domestic product has gone from 2.6 percent in the 1950s to 6.1 percent as recently as 2010. This is just a look at federal spending; each state also allocates a portion of their budget to education, with California leading the way at over $72 million. Finally, we have seen a tremendous amount of private capital injected to help reform schools. Institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested billions of dollars in education. All this spending must be yielding better results, right? Let’s take a look.

Contrary to what those in public education will tell you, the system is flush with cash, which generates very few positive results. Take New York as an example. The state was front and center in the reform battle during President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) initiative.

Leading up to the controversial dash for cash, the city had been experiencing an education overhaul, including battles over charters and a knock-down fight with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Board of Education chief, Joel Klein, and the powerful unions. The state was seeing an infusion of Wall Street cash backing charters, which were being throttled by state Democrats and union bosses.

In addition to the almost $700 million in RTT funds and the $61.4 million spent at the state level, the city of New York saw millions of dollars invested from groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). So what are the results of these investments? According to Cornell University’s NYC Education Data program, less than half of all eighth graders in the state are proficient in English language arts and math. We see this same type of result across the country.

Indeed, these results do not stack up well internationally, either. A 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation Development report shows just how far behind American students are falling. The average score for 15-year-olds in math, language, and science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test for the US was 470. Only Mexico (402), Chile (423) and Turkey (420) had lower scores. Thirty-one other nations had scores higher than the US, with Japan leading the way at 532.

Where to Look for Solutions
Why, in 2019, after all the money spent and all the reforms that have been instituted, are we still seeing such horrific results in our schools? The answer is much simpler than it has been made out to be: The system is broken. There is no remedy to fix this system. It is fundamentally flawed. The famous saying that you cannot fix a problem with the same mind that created it rings so true. So if reform will not work, what are we to do?

Again, the answer is simple: unschool. First, let’s be clear—charters and virtual schools are not desired long-term outcomes. They are soft variants of the current system, and while they may show growth in the short-term, in the long run, they still stifle learning due to government regulation. There are many methods for accomplishing the goal of unschooling. Some systems are already in place, such as homeschooling. Another great model is the Sudbury School. This is a democratic system of education that allows students the autonomy to determine their own paths of learning.

All across the nation, students are being prodded like cattle into classrooms, and the one-size-fits-all approach is failing them. They are bored and uninterested, and we blame them. We tell them and their parents that there is something medically wrong with them—that they need medication and counseling. This ought to weigh on the minds of every adult in America as cruel and abusive. Only systems that return power, and ultimately the desire to learn in children, will suffice. We need more educators like John Taylor Gatto to speak up and have the courage to buck the system. We need more leaders like Kerry McDonald and Dr. Peter Gray, who have led the charge in researching and promoting the unschooling model. Until that time, we will keep fencing with shadows.

Part I written by Mike Margeson and Justin Spears for the Foundation for Economic Education ~ May 13, 2019

Part II was written by Justin Spears for the Foundation for Economic Education ~ May 27, 2019

~ the Authors ~
Mike Margeson is a high school social studies teacher in Indiana; he has 15 years experience in the classroom. He holds a bachelor’s in Political Science from UC Irvine and a master’s from Butler University in educational administration. He is currently working to co-author a book, Failure: The History and Results of a Broken School System.

Justin Spears is a high school social studies teacher in Indiana. He has been in education for over a decade but has a background in business. He holds a Bachelors in Marketing from Butler University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Indiana University. He is currently working to co-author a book; Failure: The History and Results of a Broken School System.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U. S. C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

2 thoughts on “The History and Results of America’s Disastrous Public School System

  1. Pingback: Benson: Public Schools Are A Dismal Failure | The Federal Observer

  2. Pingback: Mornin’ Coffee: May 31, 2019 | The Federal Observer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.