Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is fond of saying that public schools in America haven’t changed in more than a century and, as a result, are failing kids.

Our children, she has said repeatedly, deserve better than the “19th-century assembly-line approach,” and would do much better with her vision of education, one in which taxpayers shoulder the cost for any school that parents want to send their children, and the ability to choose is the most important measure of success.

DeVos is a billionaire who once said public schools are “a dead end” and who has spent decades, with her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos Jr., trying to expand alternatives to publicly funded school districts, such as charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and programs that use public money for private and religious school education.

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In her worldview, “public education” refers to any school that gets public funding, so that a religious school that accepts publicly funded school vouchers, for example, would be public. She said that here, and more explicitly on May 6, 2019, when she was addressing education journalists:

Today, it’s often defined as one type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of “the public,” then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to “the public.” That should be the new definition of public education.

But is it true that public education in America has not changed in more than a century in the way DeVos says? Historians and education scholars say it is not.

Adam Laats, for example, is a professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY), who recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post that said it is DeVos who wants to retreat into the past, commenting on her new definition of “public education”:

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While this sounds reasonable, even enlightened, on its face, those familiar with the history of American education know all too well that DeVos’s new idea is actually a very old one — one Americans rejected two centuries ago for a simple reason: It didn’t work.
Viewed through that lens, DeVos’s plan is not an innovation, but rather a step backward into the dysfunctional ideas out of which our current public-school system evolved.

DeVos’s definition of public education, he wrote, is the same as that of American elites in the first half of the 19th century, when cities “cobbled together funding from a range of sources” to open schools for every child. The funding, though, was never enough, and many of the schools were run poorly, driving reformers to create the system of public funding and control we have today.

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Jack Schneider is a scholar of education history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of several books, including “Beyond Test Scores,” who explains in the following Q&A I did with him why DeVos’s contention that nothing has changed in public schools is very, very wrong.

Q) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos likes to say, as do many of her allies, that American public schools are stuck in a factory model and haven’t changed in something like 100 years. As an education historian, what do you think of this?

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A) There are two problems with a claim like this. First, there’s the issue of the so-called factory model, which was never a historical reality. Factories are, at best, a useful metaphor in public education. When deployed aptly by people who truly understand the system — I’m thinking here of experienced teachers and leaders — the metaphor can help call out problematic practices. Curricular standardization and high-stakes testing, for instance, fail to recognize the importance of context, relationships and autonomy. Progressive educators, then, have sometimes used the metaphor of the factory to push back against those kinds of reforms. But schools were never actually modeled on factories.

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The second problem is the claim that schools haven’t changed. If we could transport ourselves to a typical school of the early 20th century, the basic structural elements — desks, chalkboards, textbooks, etc. — would be recognizable. And we might see some similar kinds of power dynamics between adults and children. But almost everything else would be different. The subjects that students studied, the way the day was organized, the size of classes, the kinds of supports young people received — these essential aspects of education were all different. Teachers were largely untrained. Access to education was entirely shaped by demographic factors like race and income; special education didn’t exist. Latin was still king. It was just a completely different world. To say that schools haven’t changed is just an extraordinarily uninformed position.

Q) What, then, would be the point of continuing to say that school hasn’t changed, when it has?

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A) If schools haven’t changed in a century, it makes a powerful case for radical intervention. Schools, of course, do tend to be pretty resistant to reform. But they are constantly evolving. Over time, our schools have gradually responded to shifts in what we believe, what we want, what our norms are and what our society is like. Nevertheless, it’s relatively easy to level a claim of stagnation, because much of school infrastructure — buildings, chalkboards, desks, etc. — hasn’t changed dramatically. Such claims paint schools as outmoded and incapable of adaptation. And if that’s the case, maybe they do need to be “disrupted,” as people like DeVos claim. That’s the rhetorical strategy.

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Q) Can you talk a little about how subjects have changed, and how approaches to the same subject have changed over time?

A) Latin and Greek once dominated the academic curriculum. High school math generally topped out at geometry. And subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing were not uncommon. So we’re talking about a pretty different set of classes. Meanwhile, students tracked into the nonacademic program — particularly in the early to mid-20th century — were generally enrolled in watered-down versions that they understood as a sign of their inferiority. We still regularly fall short of our ideals, particularly with regard to issues of equity, so I would never claim that present schools are perfect. But it’s also important to recognize that we have come a long way — largely as a result of marginalized communities fighting for inclusion and equal treatment.

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In terms of pedagogy, it’s important to remember that class sizes were much larger, at least in city schools, so teachers had little choice but to stick students in rows and work to keep them quiet. Because pre-service training didn’t become prevalent until mid-century, most educators simply taught as they themselves had been taught. And because students often didn’t even have the same set of texts, teachers needed to lecture in order to deliver common content. So it may be easy to parody teaching today — as being teacher-centered and lacking “personalization” — but it’s hard to overstate how much that was really the case 100 years ago.

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Q) There are people who say that while schools in publicly funded districts haven’t changed, charter schools have been more experimental and brought “best practices” that traditional public schools somehow missed. But when I look at them, I don’t really see anything at all revolutionary. More instructional time, computers, uniforms, sometimes high expectations, sometimes social-emotional supports, etc. Charters didn’t invent those. Have charter schools really pioneered anything new?

A) I think it’s important to distinguish between the so-called no-excuses charters and a less common set of charters that are alternative by design. At the latter schools — and I’m thinking here of schools like Frances W. Parker in Massachusetts, where one of my colleagues was the founding principal — increased autonomy has allowed teachers and families to do some pretty innovative stuff. Of course, you don’t need a charter to do that. The high-profile examples of innovative district schools, like Debbie Meier’s Central Park East school in New York, are models for the kind of democratic organizations that I think really serve kids and communities best. I think it’s also important to add that there are schools — charter schools, as well as traditional public schools — that have pursued what to my mind is the most important innovation of all: integration across race and class.

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All of that said, it’s worth noting that even if charter operators wanted to innovate, their hands have been tied for nearly two decades by high-stakes accountability systems. Such systems require schools to focus on a fairly narrow set of benchmarks if they want to have their charters renewed. And there’s research indicating that even progressive charters experience mission drift as a result of test-based accountability.

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Q) Does anything DeVos says about how stagnant public education is in America ring true?

A) There’s a ring to these claims, but I’d argue it’s a hollow one. Let’s take an example of ostensible stagnation: the fact that most classrooms remain teacher-centered. Secretary DeVos would argue that this characteristic has endured across time because of the “system.” Bureaucrats, red tape and teachers unions are the reason why this feature of public education hasn’t changed. She has made this case again and again. But to what extent is that really true? Well, let’s look at a sector where there are no unions and little bureaucracy — at the so-called “independent” schools that often cost upward of $50,000 a year — and see what they’re doing. Lo and behold, most classrooms are still teacher-centered. So, right away, the logic of her argument begins to fall apart. She’s right that this is a consistent feature across time. Yet the diagnosis and prescription are wrong.

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As always, the real explanation is pretty complicated. Culture is a part of it. Our notion of a “real” school is shaped by our own experiences, so there’s a lot of pressure from families to reproduce the education system for their own children. We’re working with limited resources, so teachers can’t simply let learning unfold the way it does when you’re working one-on-one with a student. Teaching is an incredibly complex profession, requiring tremendous expertise, but for a variety of reasons we see high rates of turnover, so lots of teachers are leaving the classroom before they really master the craft. I could go on. The point is just that simply saying “the system is broken” isn’t particularly helpful.

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Q) In regard to schools being resistant to reform: Over the years of covering education, I’ve seen one reform effort after another get introduced, then abandoned, and then tried again under a different name with a slightly different twist. So I can understand why the educators and administrators don’t jump right in. Why else are schools resistant to reform?

A) That’s a big question that scholars have written extensively about. But let me offer just a couple reasons.

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One is the amount of slack there is, or rather isn’t, in the existing system. For a reform to have an impact, it’s going to need to change the behaviors of educators. Yet how is that going to happen when the typical educator is teaching for most of the day? When is the professional learning going to take place? In a quarterly professional development session? On their own, at night, after they’ve lesson-planned for the next day and finished grading papers? It’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to change their practice when they’re in a full-out sprint for nine months. Summer is a possibility, but teachers are only paid for nine months of work, so if you want them to come to school you’re going to need to pay them. And there just simply hasn’t been much public appetite for raising taxes in order to support teacher professional learning.

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A second reason has to do with capacity. Where is the leadership going to come from? Principals are already overtasked, doing essentially three jobs in one — the instructional job, the managerial job, and the political job. Teachers inhabit a flat profession, which doesn’t really cultivate leadership. So on day one, your title is teacher, and when you retire four decades later, your title is still teacher. Consultants, even if they’re quite good at what they do, often have very little knowledge of local context. And all of this is assuming we’re dealing with a reform effort that would actually improve school performance, which frankly we can’t safely assume. Lots of reforms are crafted by people who have more influence than expertise.

In short, reform fails because we don’t have a system designed to foster improvement. Once more, this is a challenge we could potentially address. But we certainly aren’t going to improve the work of schools by tearing the system apart. That’s a treatment designed to kill the patient.