Is What Once Made U.S. Schools Great Now Holding Them Back?

Cross-posted at Education Week.

The United States, long widely regarded as the world leader in education, peaked and leveled off in the 1970s, while a growing number of other countries came from behind to far exceed American performance. Why?  If we knew the answer to that question, it might say a lot about what we have to do to match the performance of those who overtook us years ago.

Here’s a clue.  Back in the early 1920s, a young Russian economist named Nikolai Kondratieff, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, came up with a theory to explain what he called the “long wave cycle” in economics. When Kondratieff talked about “long wave” cycles in the economy, he meant boom and bust cycles on the order of 50 years apart.

At the start of each cycle, he saw large economies with dominant industries based on aging technologies.  New technologies were coming along that promised dramatic improvement in efficiency, effectiveness and productivity but these new technologies could not get a foothold because the people who dominated the economic and political institutions stood to lose their power and their fortunes if the new technologies were allowed to fully develop.  Eventually, said Kondratieff, the old economy would collapse of its own weight and the new technologies would attract a great deal of capital and take off.  But not without a struggle.  In time, the insurgent entrepreneurs of the new economy would produce the next boom, cast the last round of industrial oligarchs aside, become the entrenched captains of what would in time become the next old economy and lead the country into the next bust, only to be replaced by the new insurgent technologies, led by the next round of insurgents and the next boom economy.

Underneath this proposition is a key insight.  Kondratieff understood that, as each new round of more advanced technologies comes along, it typically cannot progress very far until the old order, the power brokers who built their careers and institutional and political power on the foundation of the formerly new but now old technologies, are pushed aside. That does not happen without a struggle and will indeed only happen when the economy that was powered by those old technologies weakens and fails.  Why is that?  Because a very large ecosystem of institutions and institutional power grows up around the new technologies as they are adopted at every level of the economy.  Everyone in that ecosystem is very reluctant to change the way the system works because they do not know how they will fare if the system falls apart.  Only the prospect of economic disaster—not necessarily for the economy as a whole but for them and their family—will make them think seriously about permitting a new ecosystem to grow on the grave of the old one.

What, you are asking, does any of this have to do with the failure of the American education system to keep up with a growing number of countries whose education systems now surpass ours in both achievement and equity?  My answer is: Everything.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, the United States, taking a cue from the Prussians, took the lead in introducing compulsory education at the elementary school level. At the turn of the century, we did the same for secondary education, and, in doing so, turned what had been an institution serving only a small elite into an institution for mass schooling.  After the Second World War, we did it again, creating a mass education system at the university level where, before, that level of education had been available only to a small elite.

Mass education, in Kondratieff’s terms, was the new technology, bursting through the society, and, in doing so, creating a mighty engine for economic growth and individual advancement.

The shape and form of that technology was brilliantly matched to its context.  The United States had very few people with educations above the primary school level, so it had to turn to teachers who had only a little more education than their students.  But it did not need many workers with advanced educations.  Most workers would need only what we now think of as basic literacy.  Granted, that was more than most immigrant families and internal migrants coming to the newly industrializing Northern cities from the South had, but it could be done by teachers who would not need the kind of education that the small but growing class of professionals and senior managers would need. So, the country relied on getting teachers who, at the secondary level, had only a couple of years more education than the students they were teaching.  The authorities didn’t have to pay them very much at all, because they could get minorities and women who answered to this description and had very few other choices.  Because the women who filled these new positions were expected to resign as soon as they got pregnant, it made no sense to invest in the development of their skills.  Because they, like the factory workers on whom the model was based, were not expected to know much, the good wages and real authority went to the men in the central office who were expected to tell the women in the schools what to do and how to do it.  The teachers were treated as interchangeable parts of the machine, just like the workers on the factory floor.

While this system might strike the reader as cynical and lacking in respect for people playing a vital role in our society, I think you will have to agree that it was ruthlessly efficient.  And it enabled this country to develop a mass education system very rapidly on a giant scale, eventually powering this country to global economic dominance early in the 20th century, thus enabling us to win two world wars, create the post-war economic order and ride the crest of the post-war wave of economic prosperity.

But that is not the whole story.  When this system was first taking shape, the initiative for creating schools lay entirely at the local level.  Communities decided they needed a school and banded together to build one and hire a teacher.  The system was built from the ground up, not the top down.  It was not that the formal decision was made to institute local control.  The initiative came from the bottom, not the top.  This turned out to be a great advantage to those who wanted change.  If the communities that were most determined to broaden the availability of public education had had to duke it out in the state legislature, they might have had to wait a long time.  But, because the decisions were made community by community, those who were most interested could blast ahead of the more reluctant.

This accident of localism created another defining characteristic of American schooling.  It allowed rich people to congregate together to create their own school districts.  Rich people were willing to pay a lot for their schools.  But, when everyone is rich, the amount required to run very good schools can be produced for a very low tax rate on the rich families in that district.  Of course, the converse is true for the poor families who cannot afford the very expensive housing in such a community.  They end up having to pay a very high tax rate, even though that high tax rate will only produce enough in total to fund schools very poorly for their children. No one designed the system to produce this outcome.  It was an accident. It is appallingly unfair, but it turns out to be, again, ruthlessly efficient.  The best schools went to the children of the richest families, who were the easiest to educate to high standards.  The country only needed a small proportion of its workforce to be highly educated.  There were only a few highly educated teachers available.  Put them together with the students with the greatest advantages and you will get a machine capable of producing very quickly a highly educated cadre who would go on to become very highly educated research scientists, professionals and senior managers.

Once again, the accidents of the origins of our education system ended up producing outcomes that, while deeply unfair, played nevertheless a crucial role in propelling the United States to economic dominance.

Recall Kondratieff’s dictum that the long-term growth of the rising economy under the influence of the new technology was accompanied by the growth of a whole set of institutional interests tied to that technology.  This includes the executives who earn enormous salaries and benefits, the lobbyists for the firms, the companies that sell to the key firms (indeed the whole supply chain), the unions to which the workers belong, the customers who are accustomed to buying their products, the attorneys who represent them, the insurance companies who insure them, and, not least, the politicians who look to all of the preceding list for support at election time.

As the modern form of our school took shape, all these institutional forces were at work, with a whole ecosystem growing around the accidents of history that had given shape to our system of schooling, from lobbying groups to employee unions, from professional associations to schools of education, from school bus contractors to educational publishers—all of them deeply knowledgeable about how the system worked—not for the students but for the adults—and accustomed to making out reasonably well in that system as its accomplished players.

Over time, the accidents that created the system became eternal verities, the occasion for a call to arms.  Local control became a rallying cry for freedom in the Republic.  Cheap teachers became an unchangeable basis of school finance as did large central offices in suburban and city districts.  The right of each district to set its own school tax rate became an underpinning foundation of big differences in the value of real estate from community to community.  In all of these and countless other ways, the accidents of the origins of our schooling system got “baked in” to the socio-political-economic design of our schooling system.  The economic interests of countless people at every level of our society became tied to the structure of our school system.

You will recall that the next step in Kondratieff’s “wave cycle” was that the once-new technology eventually peaks and can no longer deliver steady gains in economic welfare.  That is exactly what happened to our schools in the 1970s.  Since then the cost per-student has risen steadily and steeply, but student performance has been flat.  Since then, the countries that were far behind the United States have surpassed us modestly in student attainment and have far surpassed us in achievement and equity.

I will argue that they were able to do this precisely because they were behind us, because they were able to create “green field” national education systems to fit a context much more recent and much more modern than the context in which our system was created.  In most cases, they did not have to revise and remold a mass education system built for another age.  Most of them did not have mass education systems.  They could build a system for quality, not just quantity, of education.  They could assume the availability of college-educated teachers, not their scarcity.  They did not have to overcome the truly debilitating consequences of having a financing system based on local property wealth. They were not accustomed to an education system set to basic literacy standards and could from the start build one based on much higher standards for all their students.  Our decision to build big central offices for our big districts has given us the bureaucracies that hold back the development of professional teaching cultures in our schools.  Our penchant for localism, combined with our distaste for central government has made it almost impossible to attract or retain in our state departments of education the quality of senior officials that are available in the top-performing countries to run their systems.  And so on and on, policy pillar after policy pillar.

The United States is in many ways the victim of its pioneering success.  The very things that made it possible for us to get far out front are the very things that now hold us back.  As Kondratieff pointed out, it is much harder to build a new system when one must first unbuild the system that once worked very well in another context.  In a democracy, this requires addressing the needs and concerns of all the institutional interests that have been built around the contours of the old system.

But, as Kondratieff also pointed out, it has, over the years, been done again and again nonetheless.  In this case, there is no time to lose.