How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System

Judy Hartnett's picture
Thursday, May 10, 2012

More than 150 years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to provide all of its citizens access to a free public education.

Over the next 66 years, every other state made the same guarantee. The result was a publicly-funded system where, in every American classroom, groups of about 28 students of roughly the same age are taught by one teacher, usually in an 800 square-foot room. This model has been the dominant archetype ever since.

It's a factory-model classroom. Inspired in part by the approach Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843, it seemed to adequately prepare American youth for the 20th century industrialized economy. But in 1983, the federal government declared in A Nation At Risk that our system was starting to slide.

The year 1983 was also seminal for the technology industry. Microsoft released MS Word and Apple introduced the new Apple IIe. Some predicted that the demand for better schools, coupled with the supply of computers and new software, would soon revolutionize our nation's classrooms.

It didn't quite happen.

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