Our Current Educational Model: How Did We Get Here?


I believe it was the late great Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer, who is credited with saying “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” As you think about our current educational system, particularly at the high school level, you have to ask yourself how we ended up with our current educational model.

In many ways, I think it goes back to the Yogi Berra quote. I am not sure that anyone envisioned the modern high school when the Progressive Era ushered in the idea of a more globalized high school experience for all students. The number of students that graduated from high school went from about 9% of Americans in 1910 to about 50% in 1940. This sharp increase in high school attendance took place shortly after the industrial revolution. That is likely not a coincidence. Much of the industrial revolution was about efficiency and standardization in order to increase production and drive down costs.

Much of the current high school system that is still in place today followed those same principles. 

The education system wanted to create a predictable, shared experience for students. Like a factory that produces various products, the products/students needed to be ranked and sorted. Put another way, the products needed to be graded. Yes, it is true. The same system to grade sides of beef rated on the quality (grade A beef) is the same system we still use to grade academic achievement. This standardization process in some ways simplified things.

David Hood calls this educational model the Power of One:

One teacher taught one topic to students in one grade at one school in one classroom from one curriculum for one hour. This made it very predictable and created generally common outcomes. If a student graduated from high school in America, they should have the skills necessary to go to work in a factory. Additionally, the hiring supervisor would have a realistic assumption of the skillset that person would bring. 

The school operated like a factory and the factory operated in a similar fashion to the school. A bell rings to start the day, to signal lunch, and to dismiss. Compliance is the goal for safety. But, I actually don’t know a single person that works in a factory. Not one. I know that in certain parts of the country manufacturing is still a major industry. However, much of that work is being automated by robots and other artificial intelligence. 

So, if the goal/purpose of our educational model is no longer to sort/grade kids or to train factory workers, then what is the purpose of school? 

If you ask 100 people that question, you will get 100 different answers. I actually know that to be true because I have asked at least 100 people that very question. Most people start with a common response which is: “That is a good question, I have never thought about it.” It is shocking that most of us spend 13 years of our lives in the K-12 education system and very little thought is given to why.  Well, I know at least some people have thought about it.

Here are some of the responses I have gotten 

On the positive and optimistic side of the range of answers, you get answers like to…

  • “Educate our citizenry”
  • “Make informed decisions during elections”
  • “Prepare a workforce for a global superpower”
  • “Have a place for young people to explore ideas and passions”

On the less positive and perhaps pessimistic side of the spectrum, you get answers like to…

  • “Keep people out of prison”
  • “Indoctrinate people in a certain set of beliefs”
  • “Teach them how to deal with miserable things later on in life by giving them the chance to learn how to deal with it at an early age by being in school”

One other unique factor in this conversation is that all of us are experts in school.  We all have first-hand experiences that we draw from both the positive and negative parts of the experience.  Every person I know in my social and professional circles all went to high school and on some level had some similar experiences.

This is part of what we use to protect what currently exists, isn’t it? That there is some type of “right of passage” that all Americans must go through by being a high school student?

But what if we landed on earth from another planet with no pre-conceived notion of what school was/is? 

Would we build it the same way? Would we create the same structures that currently guide our practices and educational model? What would we determine is the purpose of school, and how would that inform our work and the way we build our system?

By Nathan Gorsch | July 23, 2021, 9:19 PM PT

Up Next: Compliance within our Current Educational Reality


Meet the Writer

Nathan Gorsch is the Principal of Village High School in Colorado’s Academy 20 School District. There, he supervises the online high school program for over 400 students in both primary and supplemental online/blended enrollments. His role encompasses curriculum selection/development, teacher evaluations, student scheduling, marketing, and enrollment.

His degrees include a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from Colorado Christian University, a Bachelor of Science from Illinois State University, and a Certificate in Education Administration from the University of Denver.

Currently, Nathan also serves on the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort, the ASD20 Envisioned Future Taskforce and the Academy School District 20 Research and Design Team. He develops strategic plans and shares learned best practices for e-learning and improves personalized learning implementations across the United States.