Sherman Dorn: How the "Industrial Era Schools" Myth is a Barrier to Helping Education Today

Betsy DeVos got slammed on Twitter Tuesday after posting a tweet from SXSWEdu that included the following:

Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t.

Last time that I checked, that tweet had 629 likes, 194 retweets, and about 5200 replies, most of which read something like the following:

Don’t you know that stock photos aren’t real? How many classrooms have you visited in the past year? Classrooms don’t look like that anymore. Students don’t work like that anymore. I would think that as Sec of Edu you would be celebrating us, not putting us down. #Bye

Ouch. I recommend you scroll through a few dozen responses, because there is no way I can do justice to how a set of classroom teachers are explaining how they work. And how viscerally classroom educators are alienated by DeVos.

At this point, comments by both Audrey Watters and me on the terms factory education and industrial-era education are showing their age, and I wish to make somewhat different points. To put it bluntly, efforts to improve educational practices are not helped by bad history.

First, a short detour in what we can claim about the history of education, and I promise we will return to the main point soon: neither historians nor anyone else can definitively claim nothing has changed in a system such as schooling. All systems have repertoires and common features. What we can tell is whether certain practices are stable parts of a repertoire — i.e., whether there is evidence of continuity somewhere. The persistence of a repertoire element (such as call-and-response teaching in a classroom) is neither evidence of its commonality nor an explanation of persistence. As far as I am aware, historians have no basis on which to measure the extent of any particular type of schooling over time. We can document when something became a recognized part of the repertoire of practice, but that’s different.

How we explain continuity in practice repertoires is important, and I hope we don’t have to declare this something to be done only with the historical equivalent of masks, gloves, and fume hood.1 But Betsy DeVos is far from the first to make just-plain-wrong claims about “industrial-era schooling,” etc. — and thus the blog entries over the past few years by Watters and myself.

Systematic features (like practice repertoire elements) can persist for all sorts of reasons. Go ahead, call them features. But don’t make up stuff, and by “don’t make up stuff,” I mean don’t say that their persistence means nothing has changed. Don’t invent a story of system design. Don’t assume that someone’s record of intended design is what actually happened. The fact that someone suggested a particular practice does not mean that any one Great (or Evil) Pedagogue designed American school practices in a straightforward manner–that is a silly claim in the long history of decentralized teaching. Influences are subtle, subject to interpretation, often incomplete or ironic in real life, and subject to contestation and reversals.

Schools have changed in the past 100 years, and the ways in which those changes have happened–and where it has been easiest or hardest–are more important than you think. In every generation, plenty of educators and students have been creative, inventive, and worked hard to improve schooling. Sometimes those improvements have left a record. Where those improvements persist, we tend to forget that things have changed. That’s where David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out the invisibility of institutional trends against the visibility of cycles of rhetoric, in Tinkering toward Utopia (1995).

Where that creativity has been short-lived, we tend to forget that there have been options, paths blazed that have been disused, ignored, destroyed. It’s especially important to acknowledge that in many of those cases, the attempted/abandoned improvements come from Black and/or Latino/a educators. For more, see the work of my colleagues V.P.FranklinVanessa Siddle WalkerSonya Ramsey, and David Cecelski, among those who have documented the creativity and efforts of those educators. The erasure of those efforts and perspectives is one of the things that is most shameful about the “nothing has ever changed” narrative.

The persistence of certain practices is important, absolutely. But it is not the result of some imaginary scriptwriter, nor is it inevitable. The history of those prior efforts is critical to encouraging educators to be creative, and squashing that history is foolish. I have yet to meet a teacher or administrator who has felt disempowered by knowing other educators in the past have been creative and have worked to carve out space for the best education they could provide. Even if a school system has abandoned or undercut those efforts, it is crucial to know they were there, and the explanation of the long-term pattern is different from the claim that we are somehow stuck in an industrial-era system. Today, we have a 2018 system of schooling, and next year we will have a 2019 system.

The power of Tyack and Cuban’s “grammar of schooling” claim or Mary Metz’s “real school script” argument is how each points to current dynamics, current beliefs, current ideas that keep certain practices alive. It’s not a dead hand by any means. Or go read Powell et al.’s The Shopping Mall High School (1985) for the claim high schools are more comfortable with add-on components than with fundamental change. In his 1988 book on Philadelphia’s Central High School, David Labaree made a similar argument, that school systems are very comfortable differentiating opportunities and institutional features. Whether or not you agree with these arguments, they are much more substantive claims than DeVos’s.

To the extent that rote memorization or call-and-response teaching persist, that persistence is related to the institutional and cultural dynamics of schooling, not a particular economic regime or era. That is an important thing to understand, and a “schools have not changed” claim does not help. The weak understanding of education history is actively harmful to improving schools. It is a distraction from the current dynamics that drive system features. Those dynamics are subtly different in every generation.

The effort to redesign what your local school looks like needs to understand that history without taking “things never change” shortcuts. The best reason to move away from a dead-hand narrative of education history is precisely to free us from the idea that schools cannot change. They can. It’s hard, but they can, and we are not the first generation to make changes. Nor will we be the last.

If you want to help educators move schools away from persistent practices that are unhelpful, unnecessary, harmful: you have my support. But if you are tempted to make claims that schools have not changed, you are failing at both understanding history and helping schools improve.



  1. Historiographical Fume Hood might be a good documentary title, or band name.

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives. His research interests include how schools educate children they have treated poorly in the past and how we define...