Don Peppers opines, “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.” - Albert ShankerFor more than 30 years prior to his death in 1997, Albert Shanker was a pivotal force in the teachers’ unions, serving as President of both the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. But as hard as he fought for teachers’ rights, he also felt the public education system in the U.S. was sadly inadequate.
And with good reason. State-sponsored public education in almost every country in the world is unsatisfactory and inept, a scandal we’ve tolerated far too long.
The origin of comprehensive, state-sponsored schooling in the industrial era can be traced to 19th Century Prussia. In the early 1800’s Prussian military rulers implemented a national schooling program to ensure a supply of disciplined young soldiers capable of resisting any future Napoleonic-style invasion of their country. Under the guise of teaching young boys how to read and do numbers, Prussian schools grouped students by age, rather than by knowledge or ability, sat them at rows of desks facing a teacher, rather than arranging them in discussion circles, and rang a bell regularly, so as to discipline their day while they studied a variety of subjects.
The British adapted the Prussian model when they needed to create their own cadre of professionals to administer their far-flung empire. And Horace Mann, one of the early proponents of public schooling in America, returned from an 1843 visit to Prussia full of ideas for implementing the same kind of system in the U.S.
Teaching “reading, writing and ’rithmatic” was not the main purpose for these early school systems, however, because the vast majority of adults in Prussia, Britain, and the young United States were already literate, even before public schooling was instituted. The printing press had unleashed a tidal wave of demand for literacy, and most people either learned on their own, or were taught by a combination of parents and non-public, for-profit schools. Instead, one of the primary objectives of the public school system in most countries was to raise a disciplined work force and maintain the social order.
In Matt Ridley’s ambitious book The Evolution of Everything, he dedicates a full chapter to a sweeping story of how people educate themselves, when left to their own devices. If you look at how schools develop “in the wild” today, outside of government programs, you'll be amazed at the kind of systems that evolve on their own – simply because parents want to educate their children, and they’re willing to spend money to do so, especially when they see that a state-sponsored system is dysfunctional.
And why not? After all, no one thinks a government monopoly is necessary to ensure an adequate supply of fitness centers, or hotels, or grocery stores, right? But just like hotels and groceries, non-government schools maintain their quality because they compete with each other; state schools do not.