The American Three-Tiered Education System

Three School TiersAccording to former public school teacher turned radical unschooler John Taylor Gatto, we have developed a de facto three-tiered education system in the United States as follows…

Tier One – The elite private schools for the kids of our economic elite (the so called “One Percent”), where they have the opportunity to develop skills of leadership, entrepreneurship, and creative outside-the-box thinking and develop the necessary connections to people in power to become the next generation of corporate and political leaders.

Tier Two – The “good” public schools (and comparable religious and secular private schools) that train the kids of middle-class families to become part of the what Gatto calls the “professional proletariat” – the doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other “knowledge workers” – that staff the corporate enterprises financed, launched and led by the kids from the tier one schools.

Tier Three – The “bad” or “failed” public schools for the economically disadvantage communities, which according to Gatto and other radical education activists are designed to “fail” and maintain an underclass of “them” to anchor the hierarchical pyramid of a country that continues to be comfortable with being economically stratified. These schools basically warehouse the kids of the poorest among us who, if they can find jobs at all, are hopefully grateful to take the service and other menial jobs along with filling the ranks of our large volunteer military.

To be perfectly and uncomfortably honest, my own continuing analysis of American society is moving me towards agreeing with Gatto on the above. This is not a matter of just failing to apply the needed money and effort to “fix” the “bad” schools, but more of an underlying problem, endemic when any elite conceives of a new societal institution as a tool for normalizing their privilege and control. I am concerned that our public school system, as originally envisioned by Horace Mann and other reformers suffers from this endemic problem and may be unredeemable unless completely transformed. Transformed to the extent that the states are no longer controlling the public education process, and schools are created and run by teachers, parents get to decide whether to send their kids to school, and young people are in charge of directing their own education.

State-Directed Education for the Strong Modern State

In Colonial times and into the early 19th century, my understanding is that the education of young people was handled mostly informally by families themselves in something equivalent to what we today call homeschooling or unschooling. This generally involved a mix of things based on the family’s means and connections including tutors, small informal schools, apprenticeships, self-directed home study, or having your kid work as a domestic servant for a more well to do family who in exchange would see to your kid’s basic education or training in some craft.

It was in the early 19th century with the beginnings of the industrial revolution and growing nationalist sentiments around the world that countries, including the U.S., began considering more formal government directed education systems. The first country to do so was Prussia, which developed the first universal mandatory education system, conceived as an integral part of its modern military-industrial totalitarian state. Impressed by the Prussian system (and not wanting to fall behind in the growing competition between nation-states in the 19th century) other countries including the U.S. soon followed Prussia’s lead and developed comparable state-run school systems.

In the U.S. with its federal (much authority held by states) system, that effort was launched at the state rather than national level. It was championed by the Whig part (the GOP of their day) which represented not so much the business community at the time, but the moderate conservative New England social elite. One of the most compelling arguments for state-run schools was concern among that elite that immigration of Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe could challenge white Anglo-Saxon Protestant political and cultural control of the country.

As I wrote in my previous piece, “Horace Mann & Compulsory Schooling”, the most famous champion of this new concept of state-run “common” schools, was Whig and Unitarian Horace Mann, who like other member’s of the Protestant elite, felt the new educational system created by the European county of Prussia in the early 19th century represented the best-practice for the strong modern nation-state. Mann acknowledged that Prussia was anything but a democratic country, but felt Prussia’s state-of-the-art education system could be adapted to serve the American republic.

The Prussian Three-Tiered Education System

Reacting to their devastating defeat by Napoleon’s army in 1806, the Prussian aristocracy coalesced around an idea to harness the totality of its national resources in service of a powerful modern state-of-the-art military-industrial state, led by that aristocracy. The Prussians realized that France had triumphed against them because that new republic’s empowered citizen-soldiers, as real stakeholders in their nation, had significantly better morale than the Prussian mercenary soldiers they faced.

Unwilling to loosen the reins and politically empower their own people, Prussia would instead indoctrinate them in national pride and service to the nation from a young age and employ a system of meritocracy to identify the best and the brightest to be trained to be the mid-level army officers and industrial middle-managers. So the aristocracy developed an innovative (if not humanistic) three-tiered education system built around aristocratic privilege but also leveraging meritocracy, at least to the degree that it best supported that aristocracy.

The top tier of that system (akin to our modern K-12 system) were the elite private schools reserved for the children of the aristocracy, Prussia’s “One Percent”. These schools taught their privileged young people to be leaders, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers, so they would grow up to be the skilled army generals and captains of industry to direct the country’s powerful military-industrial machine.

Writes Gatto in his book The Underground History of American Education

At the top, one-half of 1 percent of the students attended Akadamiesschulen, where, as future policy makers, they learned to think strategically, contextually, in wholes; they learned complex processes, and useful knowledge, studied history, wrote copiously, argued often, read deeply, and mastered tasks of command. (Gatto page 137)

The remaining two tiers were government run schools that were free to the public, and all about ranking, sorting and training the rest of Prussia’s youth so they could best play the needed roles supporting the elite in the nation’s military-industrial apparatus. Tier two were schools specially designed to train the most gifted among the children of the common folk…

The next level, Realsschulen, was intended mostly as a manufactory for the professional proletariat of engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, career civil servants, and such other assistants as policy thinkers at times would require. From 5 to 7.5 percent of all students attended these “real schools”, learning in a superficial fashion how to think in context, but mostly learning how to manage materials, men, and situations – to be problem solvers. This group would also staff the various policing functions of the state, bringing order to the domain. (Gatto page 137)

I keep thinking of that great Russian word, “apparatchik”, for people who hold key positions within the bureaucratic or political “apparatus” that runs an organization or country. Having studied and developing a fondness for the Russian language and the country’s history, I love the gnarly provocative sound of it. A “bureaucrat” participates in running a “bureau”, which is an old-fashioned term for a desk or a room with desks in it. But an “apparatchik” is part or an “apparatus” which in my mind connotes much richer images of cleverly designed machinery.

The rest of the kids of the common folk who did not show promise to be the high-skill “knowledge workers”, were tracked into the tier-three schools and given sufficient training to be the “worker bees”, last and least in terms of position in the societal hierarchy…

A group of between 92 and 94 percent of the population attended “people’s schools” [Volksschulen] where they learned obedience, cooperation and correct attitudes, along with rudiments of literacy and official state myths of history. (Gatto page 137)

In Gatto’s provocative summary, these Prussian educational visionaries…

Held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word and deed. (Gatto page 131)

This structure served the totalitarian state well as Prussia expanded and incorporated the rest of the German states, crushed France in the War of 1870, and outdid the rest of Europe in its industrial development. Of course it also could be “credited” with creating an obedient public willing to be slaughtered on the battlefields in World War I and embrace a sociopathic dictator rising out of the ashes of that pointless cataclysm.

But when American educational pioneer Horace Mann visited Prussia in 1843, he was certainly impressed with their education system, and felt that system should be adapted to serve an emerging non-totalitarian American republic. More broadly, Mann’s colleagues in the American intellectual elite increasingly were looking to Prussia for the “best practices” to build their young nation.

According to Jacques Barzun in his book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

The American intellectual class that did exist in the 1830s looked less and less to England and France for ideas. It was Germany that fed them… Chief among American Germanists was professor George Ticknor of Harvard. He, George Bancroft (later the first national historian), and a few others had gone to German universities and carried home the message of Herder and Goethe, Kant and Schiller in all its poetical and philosophical strength. Ticknor in turn imparted it to young Emerson and his classmates. (pg 504)

Mann’s Vision of a Single-Tier American Education System

Though Horace Mann was a member in good standing in the New England Protestant intellectual elite, he put forward a vision for a state-run taxpayer-funded “common” school system that would be completely one-size-fits-all and not rank, sort and track the nation’s youth based on either social status or merit. Mann’s vision, at least reflected in his reports and lectures, included a strong opposition to private schools of any kind (though I would imagine most of his colleagues in the upper echelons of society continued to send their kids to tutors and private schools even after those “common” schools were established).

According to Bob Pepperman Taylor in his book Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy

Building to his discussion of the Prussian schools in the Seventh Annual Report, Mann is careful to acknowledge that regardless of the strength of their educational program, schools in Prussia were employed in the service of an authoritarian state. His claim, however, is that such schools would be all the more appropriate in a free, democratic society. He is also careful to praise our own tradition of common schools and to emphasize their egalitarian structure. “Massachusetts has the honor of establishing the first system of Free Schools in the world… Our system, too, is one and the same for both rich and poor; for, as all human beings, in regard to their natural rights, stand upon a footing of equality before God, so, in this respect, the human has been copied from the divine plan of government, by placing all citizens on the same footing of equality before the law of the land”. (pg 34)

I think it is important to note that Mann’s vision for American schools was perhaps egalitarian in treating all students the same, but elitist and hierarchical in its governance model. All families would be required by the state to send their children to school to be instructed in a standardized curriculum developed by state bureaucrats. Though those bureaucrats would be appointed by legislators elected by the people, the reality then and still today is that due to money, connections and other resources, the entrenched elite tend to dominate elected legislative offices and the bureaucratic boards those legislators make appointments to. The elite are the individuals with the societal credentials, connections, and free time to serve on those sorts of boards.

Educational Standardization Protects Privilege

From my reading of human history and my own observations of the human condition over six decades of my life, standardized education (or standardized anything) tends to reflect the values and protect the privileges of the standard setters. A standardized educational process and curriculum, conceived, fashioned and disseminated by the state is then likely to reflect the agenda and biases of the elite that dominate that state’s decision making and implementing apparatus. It would be much different if Mann’s Massachusetts state school board had decided to fund local schools, but also set up mechanisms for localities to make their own decisions on school curriculum and educational methodology.

The standardized curriculum Mann and his colleagues required all young people to be instructed in in Massachusetts public schools was not focused on the “three R’s” or development of a skilled workforce for industry, but the molding of the next generation of American citizenry in the secularized Protestant values of the intellectual and economic elite. That elite feared what would happen to their America if rural parochialism and an array of “sectarian” religious beliefs (particularly the feared and foreign Catholicism) were allowed to hold sway.

According to Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. in his book, The Myth of the Common School, Mann and his colleagues developed a standardized public school curriculum for Massachusetts that represented…

A program of educational reform, indeed of social reform through education. The heart of this program… is the deliberate effort to create in the entire youth of a nation common attitudes, loyalties, and values, and to do so under central direction of the state. In this agenda “moral education” and the shaping of a shared national identity were of considerably more ultimate importance than teaching basic academic skills. “Sectarian” religious teaching was seen as a major threat to the accomplishment of this program of national unification through common socialization. (pg. 4)

This was the institutional machinery of the iconic American “melting pot” that we read about in American History textbooks. Many of my fellow progressives today probably still resonate with much of this statement, including its call for social reform through education and its opposition to religious teaching, while being less comfortable perhaps with a call for “moral education”. But remember that by and large it was representatives of the top echelon of society that were given the task of setting those binding standards that would be applied to everyone else’s children. The reality was that that top echelon continued to send their own children, for the most part, to elite private (Gatto’s de facto “Tier One”) schools.

Gatto writes in his book, The Underground History of American Education

Elite private boarding schools were an important cornerstone in the foundation of a permanent American upper class whose children were to be socialized for power. They were great schools for the Great Race, intended to forge a collective identity among children of privilege, training them to be bankers, financiers, partners in law firms, corporate directors, negotiators of international treaties and contracts, patrons of the arts, philanthropists, directors of of welfare organizations, members of advisory panels, government elites, and business elites. (pg 249)

Given that reality, the realization of Mann’s common school vision would at best create a “Tier Two” of schools for everyone else. From where I stand, we are talking about creating compulsory schools designed by the “One Percent” to instruct everyone else’s kids, but not their own, in a standardized curriculum that included the elite’s vision of America.

Whether Mann’s underlying intentions were noble or not, is it any wonder that this system was or might become corruptible and problematic in facilitating a truly egalitarian society? An education system conceived mostly by the “One Percent” that is “brought to bear” on the rest of us, the “Ninety-Nine Percent”.

One could argue that Mann’s educational vision, though parochial in a Protestant sense, was on the whole secular (or at least non-sectarian) and also not explicitly conceived in the service of business interests. His was a vision of a common “moral education” for a democracy rather than developing “human resources” for a corporate state. But he fully realized he was creating a powerful tool wielded by the state for controlling “the character of men”. Here are his words presented to the Massachusetts Board of Education…

Education has never yet been brought to bear with one hundredth part of its potential force, upon the natures of children, and, through them, upon the character of men and of the race… Here, then, is a new agency, whose powers are but just beginning to be understood, and whose mighty energies, hitherto, have been but feebly invoked… Reformatory efforts, hitherto made, have been mainly expended upon the oaken-fibred hardihood and incorrigibleness of adult offenders; and not upon the flexibleness and ductiliy of youthful tendencies. (pg. 81)

The Corporatization of American Public Schools

Powerful tools tend to become tools of the powerful. A public education system completely controlled at the top echelons of state government continued to be a powerful tool for those given the task of wielding it. And in the early 20th century, as I document in my piece, “You May Have Missed the Corporate Takeover of Education”, I believe that big business interests were ceded the responsibility for administering the American public school system and have never relinquished that control.

The events leading to that business takeover in the early 20th century I lay out in another piece, “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, based on a book by the same name written by Raymond Callahan. In his book Callahan documents how an educational “crisis” was essentially created by the popular press at the turn of that century for a range of reasons, starting with selling newspapers and magazines. Jumping on the cause of societal “reform”, the muckraking journalists of the period turned their focus on rooting out supposed inefficiencies and staid ivory-tower academic thinking in the U.S. public education system.

Read Callahan’s book for all the historical detail. But essentially, to blunt a media assault on education for its supposed business inefficiency, the U.S. public education system did its best to adopt business values that trumped academic values to better “prove” its efficient use of public funds to teach America’s youth a pragmatic curriculum that would make them more effective workers for the burgeoning American industrial society. This also led to letting people trained in business management, rather than educators, take the reins of the U.S. public education system. Says Callahan…

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. As the business-industrial values and procedures spread into the thinking and acting of educators, countless educational decisions were made on economic or on non-educational grounds. (pg 246)

Given that school teachers were mostly women, a male-centered society in the first half of the 20th century was comfortable accepting a cadre of male business executives increasingly assuming positions of control over these female teachers, and accepted those executives lack of credentials as educators. These men created a new “profession” of educational administration that was fixated almost exclusively on the financial, logistical and organizational problems of schools and gave short shrift to educational issues and facilitating human development. This profession was supported by the launch of big corporate educational foundations still active today like the Carnegie Foundation (1905) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913) that provided the intellectual underpinning for business trained administrators like Franklin Bobbitt, Leonard Ayres, and Elwood Cubberley, the latter who famously said…

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specification for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specification laid down. This demands good tools, specialized machinery, continuous measurement of production to see if it is according to specifications, the elimination of waste in manufacture, and a large variety in the output. (pg 152)

The Persistence of Tier-Three Public Schools in America

With businessmen at the helm of the education system by the 1920s and going forward, is it any wonder that a great holistic educational thinker like John Dewey, who is acknowledged by many as the great American philosopher of the 20th century, would ultimately have almost no impact on the American public education system. Dewey’s progressive education ideals were co-opted, and according to Ron Miller in his book What are Schools For?, the greatest lasting influences Dewey had on the American classroom are…

Cosmetic changes, such as portable rather than fixed seating in classrooms, are about as near to progressive reform as most public schools have ventured. To conceive of the school as a laboratory where individuals explore their lives’ possibilities, or where society experiments with new values, would entail sweeping changes in the philosophy, curriculum, methods, and administration of public schools.

So is it also any wonder that those businessmen at the helm of the American school system would not be equipped to address and support the growing movement for racial equality in the U.S. after World War II. They were all about consistent and efficient school administration within the status quo that increasingly included big business interests that were supplying the textbooks, reading programs and testing materials to a burgeoning educational market, what some have come to call the “educational-industrial complex”. They were not about stirring the pot and challenging the established order.

The Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty put increasing focus on societal inequality, including thousands of “bad” schools (Gatto’s de facto “Tier Three”) in poor communities and poor neighborhoods within otherwise large vibrant cities. We have spent the last five decades creating and implementing solutions to remedy the dilemma of these impoverished communities and their “bad” public schools. It feels like there has been some progress, but then the gulf between rich and poor in our society is by many measures bigger than ever. In the War on Poverty it appears that we have not been particularly victorious, and we as a society have to a large degree have accepted that reality.

Despite that reality, there is still a prevailing mythology that somehow public schools in those still impoverished communities can be equalized by various bureaucratic mechanisms, including forced and voluntary integration, charter schools, and leveled state funding of schools between poor and well-to-do school districts.

The favored bureaucratic mechanism over the past couple decade has been standardized high-stakes testing, championed by both Democrats and GOP alike. Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 set the table for George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy to partner in “No Child Left Behind. Basically create simple test metrics for minimum proficiency in language arts and math to identify public schools that fail to meet those scores, and then judge schools as “failed” if they can’t improve the scores themselves, triggering punitive external interventions. The goal at best being to coerce all “bad” schools to be at least “proficient” (by a sort of “martial law” of takeover if necessary) when it comes to their students’ math and language arts scores.

But still the reality that everyone knows is that there continue to be “good” and “bad” public schools (even though the occasional school is highlighted moving between the two categories). Again, some radical educators say this is by design. Other progressives say that it is impossible to have successful schools where the greater community continues to be economically impoverished, but we continue to be divided about solutions. But most progressive and conservative policy-makers cling to the hope that somehow educational equality can be compartmentalized from the larger issue of societal economic equality.

My View from the Present

180 years ago, Horace Mann conceived an education system for an emerging nation that would provide a “common” school with a “common” curriculum financed by taxpayers for every child in Massachusetts, no matter how rich or how poor. It became the model that was later implemented in other states throughout the country.

I think Mann used the word “common” to highlight that these schools belonged to everyone and were intended to educate everyone’s children in a singular curriculum designed to make America a strong democratic country. A singular standardized curriculum designed by the best and brightest (Mann included) that would best inculcate the youth of the country (particular the children of immigrants) in the essence of American values and ethical practice. It was a real world implementation of the iconic “melting pot”, which used to be a main metaphor for America in the larger world.

What I think was at best naïve and at worst disingenuous in this vision of Mann and others is that they were creating a mechanism for a small group of people in the seats of power to control another much larger group of people who were not so powerful. In terms of the state of the art in “nation building” at the time, this “Prussian model” for universal standardized compulsory public education made sense as a tool that could be employed by a more democratic country. The idea being that in America, the small group that wielded the power to shape the curriculum and the tool to deliver that curriculum would have the best interests of the larger public in mind.

That tool was wielded initially by the progressive Protestant elite, who had a vision of a strong united nation, but also a fear of foreign religions, particularly “Papist” Catholics immigrating to America in large numbers which might eventually tip the political balance away from that Protestant elite. But to the best of my understanding, most of the elite did not send their own kids to these “common” schools. They continued (despite what Mann might have naively envisaged) to attend the private schools that catered to and facilitated the continuing power and influence of their privilege.

Perhaps one can argue that it was a tool well used for the good of the larger country, but I do think that John Taylor Gatto has real insight when he provocatively describes this public school system of Mann and others as a “weapon of mass instruction”. A “weapon” that at the beginning of the 20th century fell under the control of big business interests who used it to redesign public education to match their vision of an efficient enterprise to train up American youth to be the “human resources” for a business expansion that would make America the unrivaled economic powerhouse of the world by the middle.

It was a takeover that even great humanistic educational thinkers like John Dewey and Maria Montessori could not counter. It was a takeover that resisted other education radicals in the 1960s and 1970s who tried to bring the principles of civil rights and the War on Poverty to public education. Instead, it retrenched itself with increasing standardization and regimentation that began with Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” and continuing through Bush and Kennedy’s “No Child Left Behind”.

And so today ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, we find ourselves with a national education system with its de facto three tiers – elite private schools for the children or the powerful, “good” public schools (and some comparable private schools) for the kids of the middle class, and “bad” public schools for the least economically privileged among us. Uncomfortably close in structure and effect to a system developed nearly two-hundred years ago to be the backbone of a totalitarian state.

I think the solution lies somewhere under the heading of “many educational paths”, somehow challenging a one-size-fits-all system that continues to resist real democratization because it continues to be structured to be run by a small crew at the top of the pyramid of control. Those of us in the education alternatives movement continue to strive to flesh out and make possible those other paths.

4 replies on “The American Three-Tiered Education System”

  1. Great analysis, but I disagree with one portion: “…This is not a matter of just failing to apply the needed money and effort to “fix” the “bad” schools,…” That’s the tragedy- we DO spend the money. Here in Indianapolis, the terrible Indianapolis Public School System, which has just had five schools taken over by the state, is given more per student than the finest Indpls private schools charge. But all the funds are absorbed in the system, and nothing filters down to the students.

  2. Joel… thanks for that comment! I guess I did not say it as clearly as I could. As you indicate its more than a matter of spending money, its a more profound problem than that!

  3. We have COMMAND EDUCATION. Nothing is new except that the immorality of what’s going on is blatantly bad and enriches the few.

  4. Yvonne… Human evolution is often a heart achy challenge… *grin*

    I don’t know if you consider yourself an essayist or a blogger, but even if you just want to read other’s work and add comments, you might like to participate in our “Education Alternatives” group on the progressive political blog site Daily KOS. Here is a link to our group page so you can read the “diaries”, I and another off other collaborators have posted there…

    Set yourself up with a user ID so you can post comments as well, and if you are willing to write, maybe write a diary of your own speaking to your ideas on humanistic education.

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