America’s public schools are in dire crisis. After spending nearly fifty years and billions of dollars on educational reform, the majority of urban students are still severely unprepared for college or the workplace. As reported by the New York Times (2011), only 21 percent of New York City’s high school class of 2010 graduated ready for college or a career.
For African-American and Latino students the data is even more disturbing. Statewide, only 13 percent of African-American and 15 percent of Latino high school graduates are considered college ready.
While alarming, these results are hardly surprising. The Prussian-industrial model is not designed to produce college-ready graduates on a large scale. Moreover, not only do our schools fail to give students the resources they need to succeed in college, but they also fail to impart the skills that the modern workplace demands. American companies require creative, solution-oriented critical thinkers. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively have become critical business needs.
The Prussian-industrial model of rote, passive learning does not provide our students with these vital skills. Discouraged from thinking beyond their textbooks, our students are conditioned to conform—even while successful companies constantly challenge their employees to think “out of the box”. After systemically repressing our students’ individuality and creativity, we cannot expect them to foster the innovation our economy so desperately needs.
Inherently tyrannical, our educational system is also failing to produce good citizens for our republic. Voiceless throughout their schooling experience, our graduates are unprepared to authentically participate in the political process. This dissonance, between how our children are educated and the values of our republic, undermines the very fabric of our country.
America requires a public educational model designed around the ideals that have made her great – freedom, empowerment, and aspiration. In these times of economic uncertainty and global unrest we can no longer afford to limit such an education to our nation’s elite. All children must learn to think and act creatively. Only widespread innovation can ensure long-term social and economic success.
Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Focusing on following directions, basic skills, and conformity, he sought to indoctrinate the nation from an early age. Isolating students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms fashioned a strict hierarchy—intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.
Mann chose the Prussian model, with its depersonalized learning and strict hierarchy of power, because it was the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale.
This system was perpetuated throughout the early twentieth century by social efficiency theorists who sought to industrialize the educational process. Led by educators such as Ellwood P. Cubberley, they used education as a tool for social engineering:
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” (Cubberley, 1917)
Building upon the depersonalized uniformity and rigid hierarchy of the Prussian system, they constructed an industrial schooling model designed to produce millions of workers for Americaʼs factories.
Believing that most of America’s students were destined for a life of menial, industrial labor, these theorists created a multi-track educational system meant to sort students from an early age. While the best and brightest were carefully groomed for leadership positions, the majority was relegated to a monotonous education of rote learning and task completion.
Consequently, our schooling system is still locked into the Prussian-industrial framework of fear, isolation, and monotony. For both students and teachers, procedure is emphasized over innovation, uniformity over individual expression, and control over empowerment. It is, therefore, not surprising that the majority of Americaʼs classrooms have changed little in over one hundred years.
For more information on the Prussian-Industrial model see our working paper The Prussian-Industrial History of Public Schooling.
The New American Academy, developed in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the United Federation of Teachers, and the New York City Department of Education, is intentionally designed to be a learning organization. Through the use of semi-autonomous, four-person teaching teams, we encourage and support continuous innovation. Under the leadership of a Master Teacher, each team is given the freedom and trust to modify and adapt the curriculum, groupings, and professional development to best meet the needs of their particular classroom.
In direct contrast to the prevailing system of depersonalized learning, The New American Academy is relationship driven. Each teaching team loops with their students from kindergarten through fifth grade, nurturing powerful and deep relationships throughout the school community. This approach allows for unprecedented levels of targeted support, instruction, and mentorship for both teachers and students. In addition, by embedding a highly paid and experienced Master Teacher in each classroom, we ensure that teachers and students have the highest level of expertise to support their learning.
The focus on adult learning is another hallmark of The New American Academy model. Research overwhelmingly suggests that the single greatest factor influencing student achievement is the effectiveness of their teacher (Rivers & Sanders, 2000). Understanding that teacher passion, expertise, and growth are the foundations of student learning, our groundbreaking career ladder and mentorship system incentivize and support continuous teacher development.
The potential and creativity unleashed by our model is the engine behind our interdisciplinary, student-centered curriculum. Organized around six thematic units, lessons are hands-on, discovery-based, and engaging. We encourage active student participation and believe that the best classrooms are those in which student voice is amplified, developed, and diversified.