It’s as false as can be – especially if we’re talking about American education as there are a number of problems with the sentiment.
First, there’s a fundamental flaw in the statement: the system wasn’t designed because there isn’t one system. Due to the 10th amendment, education is up to the states. This means that each state developed its own system of education and followed its own timeline. As an example, Massachusetts had compulsory education laws in the 1700s while Mississippi didn’t have them until the 1910s. To be sure there are commonalities across states but each state has its own history and timeline.
Typically, when people talk about “design,” they’re speaking three possible events: the rise of the Common School in the 1840s, the Committee of Ten report in 1894, or the era of efficiency in the early 1900s.
Let’s start with the 1840s.
Horace Mann is generally recognized as the leading advocate for the Common School model in New England. He held a state-level position and was very interested in establishing a system that would serve as many children (by which he meant White boys, and sometimes girls) as possible and that geography (Boston versus Cambridge) wouldn’t dictate the nature or quality of education. Prussia had established such a system and as a part of a fact finding mission, he paid them a visit. Upon returning, he presented his findings to the Massachusetts Board of Education. He filed several reports and his 7th submission, filed in 1844, focused on his experiences in Europe. It contains no reference to Prussian factories nor mention of concepts like efficiency, trained workers, or docile children. While this alone isn’t sufficient to refute claims about a factory model mentality informing the development of American schools, it does challenge claims that Mann was eager to replicate a model of education that would train children to work in factories.
People will also point to the report the final report by the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten in 1894 as something that suggested a desire to train children to work in factories. The report makes no reference to factory skills or to modeling schools after factories. That said, the report advocates inquiry-based science instruction to encourage children’s creativity, the study of Greek and Latin to expand their understanding of language, and repeated exposure to history so they could get a sense of their place in the world. None of those things reflect a desire to train children to work in factories.
Meanwhile, factories that existed around the time of Mann don’t resemble factories in the way we think of them today. (An excellent piece on the Invented History of the Factory Model) Even though historians have taken different perspectives on the influence of merchants and manufacturers on the rise of the Common School movement, there is a consensus that the focus of education for most of American history, especially at the primary levels, has been about general knowledge, not the specific skills required for factory work.
For a period of time – the 1890’s to the 1920’s or so – American society was obsessed with efficiency. The idea, known as Taylorism or Scientific Management, was that any problem could be solved by breaking it down into smaller parts and figuring out time costs. The approach was used to solve all sorts of problems – from factory work to parenting to schools. As a result, school leaders of the era often wrote about the system’s application to schools. Carl Kaestle, an historian, wrote in 1983:
Schools thus became in some respects like factories, but not necessarily because they were mimicking factories, or preparing children to work in factories. Rather, both the workplace and the schools, as well as other nineteenth-century institutions, were partaking of the same ethos of efficiency, manipulation, and mastery. (p. 90)
Finally, people will often to point to bells between class periods as an indication of “factory training.” Those comparisons often ignore the long history of the bell as a means of communication or rely on one or two quotes out of context to support their claim.
Kaestle, Carl (1983). Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.