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Were our schools designed to succeed?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A lot of people are talking these days about the failure of public schools. They cite astronomical dropout rates, low test scores, and a host of other alarming statistics. I want to suggest another perspective. Our schools are actually quite successful at doing what they were designed to do.

“The large comprehensive high school was conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century to fit an industrial society. These schools were originally expected to be a sorting mechanism for an economy that had a place for students who did not graduate. They were not intended to educate all students to the level of college readiness and the system has always done a grave disservice to some children and communities.”

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“We have inherited a form of education that is sedimentary in nature. It has a 19th century structure, overlaid by 20th century aspirations about equality and opportunity, with the expectation that it should produce 21st century outcomes. It has been remarkably successful for the chaos of its design, but I believe it no longer serves the public’s interests personally, nationally or globally.”

-Steve Jubb

Our system of secondary education was designed to support a 19th century industrial economy. It aims to identify a small number of students to go on to college, while the rest are sorted out for industrial jobs, farming, the military, or worse. While it can be debated whether this was ever a good model of education, it certainly does not suit our current society in which there are very few decent jobs that do not require a college education.

Philadelphia’s high school system was clearly designed based on this model. The elite magnet schools have long prepared the selected few for college, while neighborhood schools prepared some for industrial jobs and others for the military, unemployment, or prison. (There has, of course, always been a small group of highly motivated students who have made it out of neighborhood schools and through college.)

Some people will argue that there was a golden age of public education (it usually happened whenever they were in high school). School reformer and author Deborah Meier debunked this myth in a recent blog:

“my colleague, literary critic Irving Howe, was indignant when I told him ‘we’ intended to close his old alma mater, James Monroe High School, over the next four years while opening new small schools to serve the same population. It currently graduated, I told him, only 27 percent of its incoming freshmen. He swore to me that in his day Monroe graduated nearly all its students. I looked up the data. It was way under 50 percent. ‘It can’t be,’ insisted Irving. ‘Everyone I knew graduated.’ Ah ha! Everyone he knew.”

If we are serious about creating truly great high schools, we must recognize that our present system was not designed to work for everyone.

A system that was fundamentally designed to educate only a small percentage of the population cannot simply be reformed. It must be radically transformed. We do not need a few reforms here or there, but rather a reconstruction of the whole purpose of schools. So much education reform these days amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Some basic tenets of this system will have to be abandoned as we ask ourselves, what will it take to educate all young people?

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