Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Three myths holding back America's public schools

The image of the one-room schoolhouse, while iconic, hints at entrenched misperceptions that could actually make reform more difficult. Part 2 of 3.

Mark Roberts/Herald & Review/AP/File
Children play outside the one-room Bethel School at the Friends Creek Conservation Area near Cisco, Ill., in 2011. Built circa 1890, the school welcomed its last class in 1946. It has been carefully restored and maintained by the Macon County Conservation District.

Say the words “little red schoolhouse,” and the associations for Americans are almost immediate: Caring instruction. A path to opportunity. Community. Hard work. Maybe even prairies.

But those judgments don’t bear close scrutiny. The 19th-century classroom was often chaotic. Teaching methods (and discipline) could be draconian. Books were hard to come by, and heat was often in short supply. The buildings that housed those one-room icons were not even red, typically.

Funded by local property taxes, those schools were often in a state of disrepair. Sometimes the communal drinking bucket would freeze solid. One teacher, often a young woman, would be charged with anywhere between six and 40-plus students. Children who failed their spelling test were sometimes forced to cut out and eat individual letters as punishment.

So why the mythology?

Ever since the landmark 1983 “Nation at Risk” report declared that America’s educational performance, if imposed by an unfriendly power, could have been considered an act of war, education advocates of all stripes have battled over how best to promote learning. And as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos settles into her new post, her unbridled support for school choice and vouchers has electrified debate once again over how – and if – such provisions should fit into an American school system that many see as deeply flawed.

That debate often overlooks the considerable progress since then: a record-high national high school graduation rate for 2014-2015, above 83 percent, and double the number of students performing at grade level in reading and math, compared with 20 years ago. And it is sometimes framed by the view that a once halcyon era of locally driven learning has been lost.

While it could just be seen as an unfortunate misperception, that image, along with well-entrenched myths, could actually be hindering the progress of schools today, say education historians. A more clear-eyed look in history’s rearview mirror could broaden understanding of where and how progress has been made, as well as where staunchly local tradition and federal initiatives alike have played key roles. And it could bolster support for initiatives ranging from the rejuvenation of civics education to curriculum shifts that could seem unconventional but would better prepare many students for a rapidly changing workforce.

What does that mean? For starters, letting go of a misplaced nostalgia for the “good old days” of the "traditional" school, as well as the belief that American schools have always been engines of upward mobility. And, experts say, recognizing that accepted "norms" – among them, a strong federal involvement in American schools, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core – were anything but normal, in a system that for the majority of its history has been under state and local control.

“The first big myth is that there was was a golden age when everybody was magnificently educated in all subjects in all places,” says Pat Graham, professor emerita of education history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.


Until a century ago, a majority of American children still attended a one-room schoolhouse. Back then, it was common for a town of only a few hundred people to have multiple schools, each considered its own district. Nationally, this meant there were some 200,000 districts.

During the 19th century, such schools were sometimes the only public building in a town and were the locus of community activity. But if you cracked open the door and peered inside, an unexpectedly “spartan and chaotic” scene would emerge, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at the University of Pennsylvania. Not everyone was welcome. And in the most extreme cases, Professor Zimmerman notes, teachers had whipping posts by their desks to enforce discipline.

So while these schools were at the heart of the community, the spirit of inclusivity often was sorely lacking.

“One of the great myths that people on many sides of the spectrum hold to is that anyone in the community could go to the school,” says Zimmerman. “That's not true, and special needs kids is a classic example because they weren't considered educable," he adds, noting that federal law now mandates their rights.

Race was another hurdle: Until the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, many black children received little or no education at all. When they began to go to school in greater numbers, many one-room schools in both Southern and Northern states were segregated.

The nation’s ongoing march toward truly universal public education has been slow.

In 1837, Horace Mann became Massachusetts’ and the nation’s first secretary of Education. Building on the civic ideals of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Mann was a catalyst for the common school's adoption. The earliest iteration of the public schools that educate roughly 90 percent of today’s American students, common schools were the norm by 1920. However, even after compulsory attendance laws were enshrined nationwide by 1917, it wasn’t until 1930 that half of Americans set foot in a high school, and not until 1950 that the high school graduation rate struck 50 percent, according to Zimmerman.

Around that time, says Professor Graham, the federal government began a series of landmark reforms that helped equalize public education for groups that had not had a “fair shake in the educational system." Those began in 1954, when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Others include the 1975 civil rights law mandating public education for special needs children, the bilingual education act of 1968, and the original civil rights education law, which passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s war on poverty and mandated federal funding to states, equal access for all children, and higher standards.

“You know, we never had educational policy, per se, until the 1950s,” says Graham. “We had foreign policy, we had military policy, but we didn't have educational policy. And now ... educational policy is all over the place, so it's a fairly new thing.”


Former President Barack Obama focused heavily on helping young Americans become college- and career-ready, underscoring the commonly held notion that public schools’ primary mandate has been to prepare students for a move up the pay scale.

In reality, the intense pressure on educators to make schools engines of upward mobility is relatively new. In the 19th century and early 20th centuries, a family that had children in school was typically one that had already moved some distance up the socio-economic ladder.

“This is the super important historic point: the unprecedented burden we're putting on our schools,” Zimmerman says.

The earliest iterations of public schools had a very different purpose.

Mann’s common schools educated all children basically in the “three Rs,” but their overarching mission was civic: to produce students who would be morally virtuous, well versed in the ways of democracy, and capable of supporting the nation's political institutions and growing economy. As the 19th century rolled on, these early public schools were considered the key engines of assimilation as waves of Irish and Western and Northern Europeans rolled into the country.

“Here is the very interesting question and pivot point: Is education a social good and is it built for the social good?" asks Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. "Or is it built as a market commodity for the advantage of individuals, because quite frankly, if you have a government function it must service the common good.”

And, he adds, "what has happened in the privatization movement with charters and vouchers and so forth is that it fragments society into different groups, and it takes away that social purpose of education.”

For Zimmerman, his next-door neighbor in Baltimore in the 1980s encapsulates the rapid shift in expectations for schools. Adam had an 8th-grade education but was a comfortably retired homeowner after having worked his entire career at the now defunct Bethlehem Steel, which once provided decent paying jobs to working-class America – even those with modest educations.

“That will never happen again in the history of America,” says Zimmerman.

But he’s quick to add that this was not because schools in Adam’s day were great and now they’re not. Instead, the demands on schools and teachers in the face of radical economic and social shifts are different and greater than they used to be.

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“Public education [has always] tried to respond to what the dominant forces in the country were for their young people,” Graham says.

Among those forces is globalization and automation, which have eliminated many of blue-collar jobs such as Adam's. The earnings gap between four-year college graduates and the rest of the population has sharpened in recent decades, and the unemployment rate for college graduates is only 2.5 percent, compared with a national average close to 5 percent. Schools are increasingly tasked with offering a new path to students who a generation or two ago could leave school and walk straight into career-long, good-wage employment at the factory down the street.

Furthermore, the inclusion of racially and ethnically diverse students, many of whom have been historically denied access to education or don’t come from English-speaking backgrounds, means teachers are faced with unprecedented complexities.

Given that, says Zimmerman, simply demanding higher scores on standardized tests won’t alone spur progress.

“The idea that everyone should not just go to high school, but should be 'college and career ready,' this too is utterly without precedent. That doesn't make it bad, it just makes it new.”


Also unprecedented has been the expansion of federal influence in America's education system, which has accelerated, particularly since NCLB. But for a majority of its history, education has been a staunchly local affair, experts say. Without that perspective, the Fed's recent ceding of more power to the states may appear to be regressive, or out of the ordinary.

To understand the current state of play in education, it helps to head back to 1965, and Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA).

As the civil rights movement shone a spotlight on the major inequities in the school system, the act mandated a major boost in funding and improved standards and accountability. A key piece of Johnson’s War on Poverty, ESEA was never intended to trigger a progressive federal takeover of education.

But since the Nation at Risk report, which found that 23 million American students were “functionally illiterate,” many began to feel the federal role in education needed to be strengthened.

As such efforts grew, they led to the perception among staunch advocates for local school control that ESEA’s reauthorization, No Child Left Behind, under both Bush and Obama, represented federal overreach without sufficient proof it would improve outcomes.

While there was broad consensus on the need for standards, pushback intensified from some policy experts and communities when the Obama administration tied state access to billions of dollars in funding to their adoption of Common Core, a set of K-12 standards for teaching and testing math and English that outline the skills students should attain in each grade.

However, Washington has always had a broad consensus on education policy, which has cycled between favoring local and federal control, says Zimmerman. He points out that the House votes for both the 2002 NCLB Act and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that latter of which transferred more power back to the states and district level, were both approved by similar sized bi-partisan majorities.

“ESSA, as I read it, is really a return to the original spirit of the law,” says Zimmerman. For example, under ESSA, Ms. DeVos, the new Education secretary, has had the powers of her role significantly reduced.

For many who had hoped increased federal influence on schools, through, for example, the adoption of Common Core, would have solved seemingly intransigent problems like the achievement gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers, decentralization under ESSA might seem like defeat. But historically speaking, the increasing sway Washington has held in recent decades was an anomaly. 

During recent years, for example, high school graduation rates have soared to record highs, and experts have pointed that data represents genuine progress to a degree. But at the same time, those numbers are tainted by some districts who, under pressure to meet federal standards, simply lowered the academic bar to help more students reach it. Essentially, this has meant a cohort of high school graduates with diplomas that don’t necessarily get them into college or employment.

“Those of us, especially on the left, we have to acknowledge that when it comes to the very poor, we don't have a great track record of using education to help them improve their circumstances,” says Zimmerman, adding that is not an argument against the "quintessentially democratic" goal federal standards aim to achieve.

So ESSA’s substantial relaxation of federal standardized testing rules and the federal carrot and stick approach to get states to adopt Common Core may have been an inevitable shift: A rebalancing away from Washington toward state and local control, for an education system that, historically, has intensely local roots. For example, when Vermont ordered that each town consolidate its schools into one district, opponents called it "The Vicious School Act of 1892."

In the 19th century, Michigan alone had some 14,000 districts, according to Zimmerman. Today, the nation is divided up into roughly 13,500 school districts. As an international comparison, every school in France operates under one district.

The state-local pushback against too much federal control does not suggest Americans undervalue their schools, says Zimmerman, just that they want to do things their way.

“The first and most important fact is that education in this country has always been locally organized, locally controlled and locally funded,” Zimmerman says. “You know, No Child Left Behind and its cousins have given the Feds a new kind of imprint in the school that they never had, but that imprint is almost entirely with respect to the demands of the schools, not with respect to the funding of the schools."

Indeed, both Mathis and Zimmerman point out that federal funding as a percentage of the nation’s current $1.15 trillion education spend, has, after a rapid increase beginning in the early 1990s, hovered somewhere around the 10 percent mark. Mathis says states provide around half of all school funding, although that amount has dropped below the 50 percent threshold and has not bounced back since many states cut back due to the 2008 recession. The rest of the money is local.

“It is a myth that Americans don't want to pay for schools. Americans invest billions and billions of dollars in schools," says Zimmerman. “But one of the reasons they do so is precisely because of the link between school and community.”

“And that link, although it's been a huge driver of education investment, is also a limitation on creating extra local funding, community, consensus, precisely because of the link between school and community. Americans have been loath to fund everyone else’s school, because 'that's not my school, that's your school.' "

Part 1: Robust school choice and strong public schools – can US have both?

Coming Thursday: Four areas where there is agreement on how to make progress

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