How would you redesign high school, if you could start from scratch? This is the guiding question behind XQ: The Super School Project — a new educational reform effort backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, who recently committed $50 million to the endeavor.
It’s a provocative question worthy of reflection and discussion. Mentally tossing aside what is, in order to consider what might be, is an exercise that can help us see the present in all its strangeness — revealing features of the current system as products of history and happenstance, rather than of intelligent design.
But as the premise for school reform, the question doesn’t have legs. Because it rests on two false premises.
The first falsehood is that the high school represents an out-of-date “design.” As Jobs recently asserted in an interview, “High school hasn’t been reinvented in over 100 years” and represents an obsolete technology. “It was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” she contended, “and as we all know, in the last 100 years the rest of our world has changed radically, but schools have not.”
That simply isn’t true. No team of experts ever sat down in a smoke-filled room to design the high school for the particular needs of a bygone era. And even if they had, the notion that the high school would have remained untouched in the interim is an ahistorical delusion.
The American high school was born in Boston in 1635 — erected to give classical training to the sons of an elite class of ministers and merchants. Other high schools, which popped up intermittently over time, were similar, but followed no particular model. Generally speaking, though, a high school education had little to do with workforce needs. That is, unless speaking Latin and Greek was a job requirement.
Even if we follow a different historical timeline and restrict our analysis to the 20th century —as enrollments expanded and high school matriculation became more standard —the past bears little resemblance to the present. Yes, the desks still look largely the same. Teachers still talk a lot. And classes are still held inside. But to assert that these traits indicate something unvarying about American schools is like saying that American corporations are no different today than they were a century ago, merely because they still tend to be located in offices, governed through management hierarchies, and characterized by regular meetings.
A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.
Much, of course, has persisted. Classroom instruction, for instance, is still more teacher-centered than it should be, given what we know about cognition. And critics are quick to bemoan such examples as unthinking submission to the status quo — failures that require a problem-solving intervention. Yet education is a complex field more often characterized by dilemmas rather than problems. Problems, like software bugs, can be solved. But dilemmas, like the tension between equality and individual freedom, can only be managed.
Teaching is full of dilemmas. How, for instance, do you engage a student who is compelled to be in class and whose inclinations do not always align with his or her best interests? How do you treat each child as an individual when the limits of tax-based funding require 15 to 25 students per class? Such dilemmas resist easy solutions, and the long history of failed fads like computer-based teaching provide ample evidence of this.
Which brings us to the second false premise — that you can, or should, start from scratch. This idea might hold water if schools hadn’t been steadily evolving over the past four centuries. Yet schools are organic systems, always shifting and changing. They aren’t like clunky old computers that we might replace with sleek tablets. They are like natural environments that are always adapting in response to internal and external forces. Technology designed from scratch is often better. Ecosystems designed from scratch usually fail.
None of this is to say that we should leave schools alone. Our schools are not perfect and our work is hardly done, particularly with regard to equally and adequately meeting the needs of all children. School improvement requires responsive leadership, the investment of resources, and the energy of motivated stakeholders.
But our schools are better today than they were in the past, and they are hardly the relics of antiquity that their critics make them out to be. They are better because the students, teachers, principals, and parents who make up the system have never stopped making adjustments, tinkering around the edges, advocating for change. And over time, those small changes — shaped by real problems, real experience, and real knowledge — have added up.
Reformers, of course, aren’t particularly interested in cultivating evolutionary processes. They’d rather find what works and take it to scale.
But in their rush to reboot the system, school critics are overlooking several hundred years of steady change. In so doing, they not only drastically underestimate the complexity of school improvement, but also ignore the fact that Americans have been crowdsourcing school improvement for centuries.
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of “Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools,’’ and “From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education.’’