Despite all the talk about educators and education priorities, the most important people in any school have always been businessmen. They constantly complain that our schools our failing, that they need to cut out modern fads and go “back to basics,” that unless schools get tougher on students American business will be unable to compete.

As Richard Rothstein has shown, such claims are hardly new. Because schools have never been about actual education, businessmen have been easily collecting studies about their failure at this task since the very beginning. In 1845, only 45 percent of Boston’s brightest students knew that water expands when it freezes. In one school, 75 percent knew the US had imposed an embargo on British and French goods during the War of 1812, but only 5 percent knew what embargo meant. Students, the Secretary of Education wrote, were simply memorizing the “words of the textbook...without having...to think about the meaning of what they have learned.”

In 1898, a writing exam at Berkeley found that 30 to 40 percent of entering freshman were not proficient in English. A Harvard report found only 4 percent of applicants “could write an essay, spell, or properly punctuate a sentence.” But that didn’t stop editorialists from complaining about how things were better in the old days. Back when they went to school, complained the editors of the New York Sun in 1902, children “had to do a little work. ... Spelling, writing and arithmetic were not electives, and you had to learn.” Now schooling was just “a vaudeville show. The child must be kept amused and learns what he pleases.” In 1909, the Atlantic Monthly complained that basic skills had been replaced by “every fad and fancy.”

That same year, the dean of Stanford’s school of education warned that in a global economy, “whether we like it or not, we are beginning to see that we are pitted against the world in a gigantic battle of brains and skill.” Because of their failing schools, of course, Americans were coming up short.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed a presidential commission to study how to improve our international educational competitiveness. They found that more than half of new recruits to the Army during World War I “were not able to write a simple letter or read a newspaper with ease.” In 1927, the National Association of Manufacturers complained that 40 percent of high school graduates could not perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English.

A 1938 study complained that newfangled teaching methods were forcing out basic instruction in phonics: “teachers...conspire against pupils in their efforts to learn; these teachers appear to be determinedly on guard never to mention a letter by name...or to show how to use either letter forms or sounds in reading.” A 1940 survey of business executives “found that by large margins they believed recent graduates were inferior to the previous generation in arithmetic, written English, spelling, geography, and world affairs.”

A 1943 test by the New York Times found that only 29 percent of college freshmen knew that St. Louis was on the Mississippi, only 6 percent knew the original thirteen states of the Union, and some students even thought Lincoln was the first president. It was, the Times declared, a “striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.”

In 1947, the Times’s education editor published a book titled Our Children Are Cheated. In it, businessmen lamented the poor state of American schools. One complained he had to “organize special classes to instruct [his new hires] in...making change. ... Only a small proportion [can] place Boston, New York...Chicago...Denver...in their proper sequence from east to west, or name the states in which they [are located].”

A 1951 test in LA found that more than half of eighth graders couldn’t calculate 8 percent sales tax on an $8 purchase. The newspapers complained that students couldn’t even tell time. In 1952, the journal Progressive Education complained about the “attacks on textbooks that encourage inquisitive thinking and individual reasoning, ... mounting pressure to eliminate the ‘frills and fads’—by which are meant such vital services as nurseries, classes for the handicapped, testing and guidance, programs to help youngsters understand and appreciate their neighbors of different backgrounds”—what today would be called multiculturalism.

In 1958, U.S. News and World Report lamented that “fifty years ago a high-school diploma meant something…. We have simply misled our students and misled the nation by handing out high-school diplomas to those who we well know had none of the intellectual qualifications that a high-school diploma is supposed to represent—and does represent in other countries. It is this dilution of standards which has put us in our present serious plight.”

A 1962 Gallup poll found “just 21 percent looked at books even casually.” In 1974, Reader’s Digest asked, “Are we becoming a nation of illiterates? [There is an] evident sag in both writing and reading...at a time when the complexity of our institutions calls for ever-higher literacy just to function effectively. ... [T]here is indisputable evidence that millions of presumably educated Americans can neither read nor write at satisfactory levels.” [Rothstein]

In 1983, Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education declared that our failing schools made us A Nation At Risk. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” it declared. In 1988, the chairman of Xerox warned that “public education has put this country at a terrible competitive disadvantage. ... If current...trends continue, American business will have to hire a million new workers a year who can’t read, write or count.”

In 1993, the government was singing the same tune. “The vast majority of Americans do not know that they do not have the skills to earn a living in our increasingly technological society and international marketplace,” lamented Education Secretary Richard Riley. In 1995, the chairman of IBM told state governors that our schools needed higher standards for “an era that demands improvements in skills if Americans are to succeed in the world marketplace.”

Similar complaints continue right to the present day. They are always followed by calls for “education reform” and “higher standards” which in practice always translates into the same old “drill and skill” of old. And, of course, that’s exactly the point.


I can hear the objections now. “That’s a conspiracy theory!” they cry.

As a simple factual matter, that’s badly mistaken. A conspiracy theory is the notion that a small group of people have, in secret, managed to subvert the way things normally work. What I’m talking about is exactly the opposite: it’s a large group of people, working in public, making sure things keep going the way they normally keep going.

So why does it seem so much like a conspiracy? I think it’s because, in both instances, you’re saying things don’t work the way people have always believed they worked. From a young age, we’re told that the society we live in may have its share of problems, but it’s fundamentally sensible. Schools exist to give people an education, companies exist to make things people want, elections exist to give people a voice in how the system is run, newspapers exist to tell us what’s going on. That’s just how the world works.

Now it’s reasonable to believe that all of these things have flaws—that schools, for example, could do a better job of teaching students. After all, things can always be improved, sometimes quite a lot. But when you go further and say that schools are not only bad at teaching people, but that they’re not about teaching people at all—well, that’s when things get scary.

Because if schools aren’t about teaching people, that means everything we’ve been told about them is a lie. And if everybody is lying to us, then, well, that does start to sound like a conspiracy theory.

But look back over our history—there’s no conspiracy. A group of bold entrepreneurs find they can make cloth more efficiently by building large mills. The girls who staff them keep causing strikes and other trouble, so they require their employees go to school from a young age and learn to behave themselves.

But obviously most people won’t be thrilled to go to school so that they can learn to accept lower wages without complaint. So the bosses develop a cover story: schools are about teaching people the things they need to know to survive in the world of business. It’s not true, of course—there’s no connection between the facts memorized in school and the skills needed on the job—but the story is convincing enough.

And so the spread of schools and factories destroys the American model of freedom. Instead of being independent farmers or self-employed manufacturers, Americans are herded into factories en masse, forced to work for someone else because they cannot earn a living any other way. But thanks to schools, this seems normal, even natural. After all, isn’t that just the way the world works?


Today, it seems like everyone agrees that what we need are more rigorous schools. George W. Bush joined with Ted Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind, which punished school districts (i.e. took away their funding) if they didn’t get high enough test scores. (How failing schools were supposed to improve by having less money was never really explained.) Barack Obama, of course, would never support such a cruel plan. Instead, his “Race to the Top” program will, like Skinner, catch schools doing something right—and reward them with extra funding.

But what is being tested is never a student’s “prosocial attitudes” or “consistent attendance”— instead it’s how well they memorized facts and figures. Why the disconnect? Perhaps because flunking students for not being good enough quitters wouldn’t play well with parents. As Peter Cappelli, director of the US government’s National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, put it most people are “disturb[ed]” by the suggestion “that the values, norms, and behaviors being inculcated into students through the schools appear to be in conflict with the values associated with personal growth and development.”

The solution has been to fight the battle through other names. No Child Left Behind was supposed to have the effect of forcing schools to do a better job educating their students. Who could argue with that? But examining its effects on the ground finds it did something rather different. Students, of course, were not tested on how well they actually understood basic concepts but simply on how well they could answer the standard multiple choice tests. And with so much at stake, schools converted even further from teaching kids ideas to teaching them how to perform well on tests.

Linda Perlstein spent a year at one school struggling to survive No Child Left Behind. Everything that wasn’t tested had to get cut—not just art and gym, but recess, science, and social studies (yep, no science on the tests). What remains is converted entirely over to test prep—the only writing students ever do is short answer sections (“What text feature could have been added to help a reader better understand the information?”) and the stories in class are analyzed only in terms of what questions might be asked about them.

Large sections of the class have nothing to do with learning at all. Students are instead drilled on test-taking procedure: take deep breaths, work until time is called, eliminate obviously wrong answers. Every day students are taught special vocab words that will earn them extra points and reminded about how to properly phrase their answers to get the maximum score. Instead of covering the walls with students’ art, they’re covered with test-taking advice (“BATS: Borrow from the question, Answer the question, use Text supports, Stretch the formula”).

The single-minded goal of maximizing test scores has been a blessing for the textbook market, which forces schools to buy expensive “evidence-based curricula” which has been “proven” to maximize test scores. The packages include not only textbooks and workbooks but also scripts for the teachers to read verbatim—deviating from them hasn’t been proven to raise test scores, and is thus prohibited. The package also comes with trained supervisors who drop in on teachers to make sure they’re actually sticking to the script.

The effect on the students is almost heartbreaking. Taught that reading is simply about searching contrived stories for particular “text features,” they learn to hate reading. Taught that answering questions is simply about cycling through the multiple choice answers to find the most plausible ones, they begin to stop thinking altogether and just spout random combinations of test buzzwords whenever they’re asked a question. “The joy of finding things out” is banished from the classroom. Testing is in session.

Such drills don’t teach children anything about the world, but it does teach them “skills”—skills like how to follow senseless orders and sit at your desk for hours at a time. Critics of high-stakes testing say that it isn’t working as planned: teachers are teaching to the test instead of making sure kids actually learn. But maybe that is actually the plan. After all, employers seem to like it just fine.

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Copyright © 2016 by Sean Parmer. This excerpt originally appeared in The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.