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“The Problem of Education: can a 19th century model succeed in a 21st century World?”


This month we (the CAS) are asking, “Why is education so hard to reform?” My answer: because it is a 19th century model operating in a 21st century environment. The classic study of “culture lag”, Middletown (by Robert and Helen Lynd), showed that habits of thought and action could long outlive their usefulness but persist due to familiarity. The result is a disconnect between a rapidly changing external environment and the system of concern, such that the system is increasingly dysfunctional in the new environment. Our educational system is a good example. Created in the 1840’s in Massachusetts during the first Industrial Revolution in the U.S., the public school system was designed to train factory workers and teach farm children the basic skills needed for industrialization (reading, writing, arithmetic, and conformity to externally mandated rules and regulations). School hours and vacations (such as a three-month summer vacation) have changed very little since then. As the economy has gone through a Second Industrial Revolution, then to a global industrial economy, then to a global information and knowledge economy, the educational system’s routines, procedures, practices and culture have remained intact.
The following reflections are based on my experiences as a student growing up in California, Washington, D.C., and New England; as a undergraduate and graduate student at Harvard; as a teacher and principal for ten years in two private schools; and as a consultant, researcher and educator for the last thirty years in organizational and adult workplace learning. Most of my time in teaching and school administration was spent at Beaver County Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. BCDS is a small (400 student), co-ed, independent school for grades 5-12. Started in the 1920’s as a K-8 (later K-12) environment for girls, BCDS set out to be a Progressive school along the lines set forth by John Dewey. Dewey believed in learning by doing and emphasized what we today might call “experiential learning.” From the outset, Beaver Country Day had a strong commitment to the arts and music. The school motto was Latin for “head, hand, and heart;” students were to be engaged in service projects, active decision-making in school life, and integrated learning. For instance, the school had sheep on the grounds so that students could participate in raising them, shearing the wool and using it for weaving. Even after admitting boys in the 1960’s, and going through successive waves of change in educational approaches, the school retained many of these features into the 1970’s and 1980’s (when I was there).
The gap between a 19th century school system and a 21st century society is not just a matter of summer vacations being out of sync with the requirements of modern jobs, of school days ending 3-4 hours before adults come home from work, or of inflexible scheduling and tracking of students. The industrial-era model permeates instructional practices, assessment approaches, and the mindset of standardization and rules-orientation that characterizes even the best public schools. For instance, standardized testing is the today’s descendent of the push for standardization that typified early public school systems. The SAT test, and College Board scores, became standard practice for college admissions only after World War II, but today are taken for granted. Statewide standardized testing has been a long-term goal of educational reformers, usually in the name of equity and leveling the playing field, and has gained prominence in states such as Massachusetts over the last fifteen to twenty years. Instructional practices are similarly impacted by the emphasis on standardized testing and numeric assessment, and by the founding principles of the public school system. Those goals included having a common platform for citizenship, an objective that was reinforced by waves of immigration in the late 19th century. Today’s students may take U.S. history four times in a 12-year career, meanwhile paying little attention to the history of China, Africa, Asia, or Latin America. With the traditional emphasis on history, English, math, science, and foreign languages, students are also given little exposure to areas such business, engineering, and information technology. Too little attention is given to learning how to learn, to working in teams, or to adapting to changing circumstances and managing uncertainties- all of which are standard features of today’s professional work environments. Nor are parents encouraged to think about the purposes of education, including how the schools could, or should, be designed to educate workers and citizens of the future.
What is to be done? Local experiments can point toward a different paradigm, but we also need an emerging image of the system we want within which these local innovations might have more meaning. Let’s take the three areas just identified and see what has been done already to address them- an overemphasis on standardized testing; a disjuncture between the schedule and structure of schools and the requirements placed on adults by a global knowledge economy; and the discrepancy between instructional practices and the culture of learning in today’s schools and the demands students will face over a 40 to 50 year future in the workforce after they graduate.
Debates about assessment are as old as education itself. In recent times, experiments in assessment have occurred due to concerns about standards for college admissions (the SATs), equity (in Massachusetts, the MCAS), and parity between districts, regions, and states (prompting the current administration’s move toward national testing standards). Standardized testing is thought to be a way o creating parity across geographies, social classes, and ethnic groups. Done in the usual quantitative way, though, it glosses over significant differences behind the scores (for instance, the effect of income and parents’ education on student scores), qualitative differences between students, and progress in less easily-measured but important attributes (such as social and emotional intelligence). Education reformers have advocated such innovations as portfolio assessment, through which part of a student’s assessment would be based on their portfolio of work, or on demonstrated competence in an area of interest. But could such a qualitative approach be “scaled” across large numbers of students? Would it stand up to the validity clams made by proponents of numerically-scored standardized tests?
One feature of a 21st century educational system would be its ability to reconcile such apparent polarities. In today’s work environments, successful organizations must consistently resolve such dilemmas- between local solutions and widespread standards of practice; between quantitative and qualitative information; and between individual areas of talent (even ones that are hard to measure in the usual ways) and broadly-desired competencies and skills). At Beaver Country Day School, portfolio assessment was the only way of evaluating students prior to World War II. The school was small and had no grades; students are given individualized reports, teachers met with parents, and students were individually recommended to colleges by written recommendation and word-of-mouth. More recently, “individualized instruction” was a hallmark of the middle school (grades 5-8) as recently as the early 1980s. By that time, grades were well-established, as were standardized tests. Yet there was still a wish for tailoring and customizing the curriculum to each student and their particular learning needs. The school had great advantages in trying to implement such a model- affluent parents, small class size, and an advisory system. Even so, “individualized instruction” was hard to reconcile with the dominant paradigm of standardization; even in a small private school it was a short-lived experiment. Interestingly enough, the Obama administration is calling for portfolio assessment as part of statewide student evaluation. The failed Beaver experiment may suggest some success factors that must be in place for this approach to work. Specifically, a model of evaluation is needed that gives “qualitative” information, such as portfolio assessment, equal standing with quantitative information. Teachers and administrators must have the skills, courage, and community support to design learning environments with these principles in mind. We must have new models of achievement and innovation, for instance that take seriously the idea of multiple intelligences (popularized by Howard Gardner) instead of seeing it as a peripheral add-on to the standard intelligences given priority today. Local experiments in such areas, for instance in charter schools, must be viewed as research and development laboratories which can serve as incubators for the schools of the future. And we must get away from the language of “schools,” “education,” “teachers,” and “students” if we are to change deep-seated practices in our learning system. The educational system must become a catalyst for our role in the global economy of the 21st century, not a warehouse for students to endure until they enter the “real world.” We must adopt the language of mentoring, apprenticing, advisement, and coaching. We must move away from “teaching” to learning, from passive receipt of knowledge to active co-design of learning environments and pursuits. We need to move toward action learning that is intertwined with life as we know it and envision it, more than reflexively enshrining the knowledge and traditions of the past.
When we look at scheduling, the disconnect is evident between the educational system and today’s economy and society. Has anyone tried something different? For one thing, we know that high schools in Germany operate like a hybrid between U.S. high schools and colleges. Students have more time “off” in Germany but are more responsible for working on their own and taking courses of their choosing. Closer to home, cooperative education programs at universities such as Northeastern require students to attend for five years before graduating but, in the bargain, provide them with real-world job experience during their undergraduate years. In turn, this means they have a year-round calendar; some students have their “break” in the summer, others at other times of year. The program is much more integrated with the world of work; thus the disconnect which sometimes pens up between a liberal arts education and finding a job is mitigated.
Let’s examine instructional practices. Even in progressive schools in which “cross-discipline studies” occur (for instance, between History and English programs), the basic unit of instruction remains he discipline (e.g. Math, Science, Foreign Languages, etc.). We do not find schools organized according to themes, problems, or areas around which knowledge might be organized. In the larger society, problems do not show up demarcated by discipline. In trying to reform the healthcare system, for instance, we do not begin by asking how to approach it from a Chemistry perspective. Our schools do not even identify such problems as worthy of attention. If they are discussed at all, they are treated briefly as “current events.” Thus students can graduate from 12 years of secondary school with limited knowledge of the wider world, current trends and problems, or ways of approaching them. Nor do they benefit from a meta-curriculum, or learning-to-learn theme, which could be fostered across all of the traditional disciplines. For instance, let’s say a student is required to study Chemistry but does not plan on becoming a chemist. He or she could be more fully engaged in the subject if there were regular reflection points on the way of solving problems that is featured by Chemistry. Problem-solving approaches, and ways of framing problems and potential solutions, cold be derived from any discipline; but this would require a different orientation, skillset, and assessment of “teaching” and “learning” than we currently endorse. Just as workplaces are slowly discovering that action learning, or just-in-time learning, works better for adults in work environments, so the same principles would dramatically change, improve, and transform the learning culture and environment to which our young people are exposed.
It goes beyond the scope of this already lengthy post to talk about how such a change might be brought about. It won’t be easy to move toward a 21st century learning system, but it would bring substantial benefits. To do so would require several elements:
o We would have to move toward becoming a Learning Society;
o The current educational system would need a push from outside influences; and
o A coalition of shared concern would have to be generated between business, government, educators, and citizens.
The result would be a broad social movement. Given the conservatism of the education sector, this movement would probably have to begin elsewhere- as in healthcare, or in environmental activism; that is, somewhere where there is more of a “burning platform” for change, but where education has to become an active partner for the initiating sector to succeed. A future post might take up the question of how to promote a Learning Society.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/09/20 8:40 am

    The author might want to revisit Beaver Country Day School. In the past decade and a half Beaver has leveraged advances in technology, a comprehensive and school-wide program in professional and curriculum development, and a willingness to step away from both the stultifying tyrannies of 19th-century thinking and Dewey-esque Progressive doctrine to the create and implement an overall program that offers students not just education in the “basics” but also what we are inclined to call the “New Basics”–collaboration, problem-solving in authentic contexts, and flexible, creative thinking. From the sporadic and localized application of “good ideas” in the early 80s, Beaver has institutionalized a body of always-developing best practice that allows teachers to reach individual students in a number of ways, often through the use of a broad range of assessments that include portfolios and exhibitions as well as essays (long and short) and good old paper-and-pencil tests.

    The great sorrow of the Progressive movement, at least as it was implemented (largely in independent schools and affluent public school districts) in the early and mid 20th century, is that the rigorous and comprehensive research that ultimately vindicated most of the principles on which schools like Beaver had been founded was lost in the fog of World War II. I speak of course of the Eight-Year Study, a Carnegie Foundation-funded research program that tracked large numbers of students from both “Progressive” and “traditional” schools as they passed from secondary education into college. There was plenty of good news in the study for the Progressives–see the late Gerald Bracey’s EDUCATION HELL: RHETORIC VS. REALITY (2009) for a spirited analysis and defense and the more scholarly STORIES OF THE EIGHT-YEAR STUDY: RE-EXAMINING SECONDARY EDUCATION IN AMERICA by Kridel and Bullough (2007)–but the urgency of the U.S. entry into World War II and sorting and training millions of young men for military service put the country on the road to its current love affair with standardized testing just as the results of the study were being published in a series of tomes that one suspects went largely unread at the time. At least when the Eight-Year Study concluded, the philosophy and practice embraced by schools like Beaver was not a “failed experiment.”

    The 1970s and early 80s were not so kind to the idea of “progressive education,” and I fear there are still too many places where this phrase is regarded as meaning quirky, anarchic, and inconsistent in rigor and quality. The best schools of the type, however, embraced not only some of Dewey’s programmatic ideas but his much more important but much less acknowledged belief that education–progressive and otherwise–had to be built carefully and rigorously around principles and practices that would achieve stated goals and offer students a consistent, thoroughgoing, and comprehensive experience in which the school culture and the daily learning experiences were planned and executed thoughtfully and based on sound and shared principles. “Quirky, anarchic, and inconsistent” education may have its adherents and its momentary successes, but planful and organized teaching and learning based on an understanding of students’ capacities and needs will come through in the end. It is in schools like Beaver–still small, relatively affluent, and built around a strong advisor system and deeply committed to a set of 21st-century educational principles–that may yet lead the way toward models of school reform that work.

  2. David Morf permalink
    2010/09/23 4:22 pm

    Tom, you might find interesting the motto of North Star, where “Learning is natural, school is optional.” North Star ( offers a differently structured teen environment than most middle and high schools. It’s a complete break with the 1840s Prussian model adopted in the US (example: the 45 minute class period was selected in Prussia as optimal to absorb information without further time to question informational authority–great for creating competent but highly compliant workers and soldiers–the Prussians were responding to Austerlitz). North Star systematically aims to welcome and leverage the energy in natural curiosity. Ken Danford, director, offers a recap of their ongoing experiment for principles learned ( and how-they-do-it ( In effect, by starting with the young person, not with an institutional frame, and by learning-by-doing to develop replicable ways to welcome and enable the innate curiosity, Ken and the wider community have emerged with something remarkable. North Star has been running in the Pioneer Valley of Western Mass since the late 1990s. It’s small and not expensive (considering a lot of public schools here ask parents to pay for bus fare, sports gear, etc — that adds up). It also offers scholarships covered by local businesses. The local sponsors have found the attendees to be great employees, with open interest in how things work, and the sponsors take pride that many attendees have gone on to good colleges and active careers.


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