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Structures That Hold Us Prisoner

November 23, 2013

This lengthy post is the forward to a book I started writing 11 years ago whose working title was “Beyond Factory Schools”.  I am posting it here because a high school classmate posted an article from Truthout that gave an Australian writers perspective on US education and invited my response. I wrote a cynical Facebook-style response:  I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t want to fix our education system because we like it rigged the way it is… to which she responded, “That seems to be true, but why?” This is my less cynical answer to that question:

“Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner. Once we can see them

and name them, they no longer have the same hold on us.”

                                                                                                  Peter Senge

 During my 29-year career as Superintendent of Schools, I spoke at many student awards banquets, parent meetings, service club luncheons, and high school graduation ceremonies. One speech I gave on several occasions was “Non-Euclidean Geometry and its Impact on Education in the 21st Century”. When I announced this as the title of my speech, the audience often laughed, assuming I was assigning an absurd title to a standard stump speech on behalf of the school district. But in fact that was the topic. Non-Euclidean geometry illustrates how the change in one “given” can change our entire view of the world, and I wanted to encourage members education of the audience to carefully examine the “givens” of public education in hopes I might change their perspective.

To help math phobic audience members, I included an over-simplified but easy-to-understand explanation of Non-Euclidean geometry at the beginning of my speech. In the Euclidean geometry we took in high school, we learned that the shortest distance between two points is a line. In Non-Euclidean Geometry, you begin with the premise that the shortest distance between two points is a curve. When you change that one assumption the entire system of geometry changes.  Parallel lines meet. Space is three dimensional and spherical instead of two dimensional and flat. All of the axioms we learned in high school are turned upside down and inside out.

The course I took in Non-Euclidean geometry taught me an important lesson as a prospective math teacher: everything in mathematics is a mental model. After taking non-Euclidean Geometry, it dawned on me that addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are as abstract as calculus, trigonometry and linear algebra. That lesson served me well when I taught eighth grade students in Philadelphia who struggled with basic operations. I appreciated that addition and subtraction were as abstract for them as non-Euclidean geometry was for me.

Non-Euclidean Geometry taught me an even broader lesson: everything I learned in college was a mental model. Skinner’s behaviorism and Freud’s psychoanalysis were mental models, as were Newton’s physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Adam Smith’s capitalism and Marx’s socialism were mental models as were the music of Beethoven and Stravinsky. And that led to the point of my speech: many notions we have about school are mental models and our mental models about school distort and limit our thinking about education.

For the past two decades I’ve observed that the controversies in public education are based on opposing mental models that distort and limit the thinking on both sides of an issue. Conflicts between progressive and traditional educators arise from opposing mental models about how students learn in general. Debates over phonics versus whole language arise from opposing mental models about how students learn reading. Disputes over various forms of accountability arise from opposing mental models about how learning is measured. Over the past several decades one mental model remains fixed in the public’s mind and unchallenged. From the middle of the 19th century onward, the American public has conceived of schools as factories. “Factory Schools” take in four- or five-year olds as raw material and turn out eighteen-year old graduates as a finished product. And what is the “finished product” everyone wants? A graduate who is either ready to enter the work force or ready to enter another level of Factory Schooling that will prepare them to enter the work force with even more skills.

Here’s a description of the Factory School mental model. Children enter the Factory School at a set age, usually four of five years old. When children enter the factory, the quality control staff measures them to determine how quickly they can be molded into a finished product using a “standard process”. A small fraction of the children are withheld from the Factory School at the outset, but virtually all eventually enter the Factory School where they will be “manufactured” over a 12 to 13 year time period using the “standard process”. At least once a year, the quality control staff measures and sorts children based on how quickly they are being made into a finished product. If a child is not being made into a finished product at the expected rate, they are sorted into a reject pile. Some of the children placed in the reject pile receive special treatment. The remaining children in the reject pile are re-processed. In most Factory Schools, the majority of the children progress though the standard process on time. After all, the public’s ultimate goal for the Factory School is to have it manufacture children into finished products within twelve years using the standard process.  Failure to complete the cycle in twelve years adds to the cost. When children require special treatment or need to be re-processed it either requires more staff or more time, and that inefficiency adds to the cost per unit. The workers in the Factory School often argue about the quality control standards. They also argue about the standard process. But the workers in the Factory School believe that there must be a standard process, because if there weren’t, it would result in a dramatic change to their work. The shareholders paying for the Factory School debate about the quality of the finished products and the productivity of the workers in the Factory School. The shareholders all want high quality finished products that cost as little as possible, and assume when the Factory School fails to deliver this it is due to a lack of commitment on the part of the workers in the Factory or “inefficiency” in the operation of the Factory School. Some shareholders believe that smaller and more personal Factory Schools would be more efficient. Others believe privatized schools would be better. Still other shareholders think that allowing parents to select their child’s Factory School would increase efficiency.

Since most of the workers at the Factory Schools and most of the shareholders of the Factory Schools are products of a Factory School themselves, they find it hard to shake the mental model of the Factory School. Businessmen, educators, parents and the general public all believe that these Factory Schools can be “more efficient”. In effect, the public believes its Factory Schools can be improved through “engineering”. Clearer quality standards; better quality measurements; more highly trained factory workers; a better standard process; streamlining: these are all examples of engineering fixes to the Factory School.

Because the workers and shareholders unwittingly accept the notion that school is a factory, they have not asked some fundamental questions about the way school is organized:

  • Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
  • Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
  • Why do we group students at all?
  • Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
  • Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?
  • Why do we use comparisons with other students to define “success?
  • Why do we use extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate students?
  • Why do we limit the mission of school to academic instruction?
  • What values do we teach children because of the way school is structured?

We don’t ask these questions because businessmen, educators, parents and the general public all think of schools as factories. The public accepts these practices because they believe they are needed to run the Factory School efficiently.

The fact that schools resemble a factory is not accidental. It reflects the intention of school reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reformers at that time devised the Factory School model in response to the business community’s demands for efficiency and their need for screened employees. The organizational structure that schools embraced in the early 1920s in the name of efficiency and to sort and socialize students are now part of public education’s tradition. Like most traditions, this structure is deeply rooted, accepted without question, and very difficult to change.

An examination of the list of unasked questions outlined above indicates how outmoded these “efficient practices” are today. What is “efficient” in grouping students by age, ability level or in any fashion? What is “efficient” about providing instruction for ten consecutive months a year and six consecutive hours a day? Is it “efficient” to provide ALL students with one method of instruction when all evidence indicates each student learns differently? We started all of these practices in the name of “efficiency”. Why do we continue them when they are neither efficient nor educationally sound?

We compared students to each other because the original purpose of school was to identify the students who would best benefit from a complete secondary education. We compared students to help sort students into job preparation programs. Don’t we want more from our schools today? Don’t we expect schools to educate ALL children to a high performance standard?

We used extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate students because businesses sought compliant assembly line workers and mid-level managers. Is that what we need in our workforce today? Don’t we expect employees to show initiative?

We limited the scope of schools to academic instruction because we were willing to accept differences in the opportunities available to each child. We accepted disparities among school district wealth and the resulting disparities in opportunities. Don’t we find this unacceptable today?

The current organizational pattern of public education and the current practices in public schools, all instituted in the name of “efficiency”, result in most students receiving a negative message. If they mature slowly they are losers. If they learn slowly in ANY subject, they are losers.  If they learn in a way that is different from the “standard approach” they are losers. If they aren’t receiving rewards for their academic performance, they are losers. If they are punished frequently for misbehavior or academic problems, they are losers. If they question authority, they are losers. The best course of action for a student to achieve in school today is to conform, comply, and compete. “Good students” conform, comply, and compete even if they find the norms and standards nonsensical, the rules and regulations arbitrary, and the competition rigged in favor of “winners”, those born and raised in well-educated, relatively affluent, two-parent middle class families. “Bad students” fail to do one of the three. They are outsiders, or they are rebellious, or they do no work. In almost all cases, these “bad students” got the message early in their careers: they are losers.

It is unclear to me how many people today are conscious of how strong a hold the Factory School mental model has on us and how much the Factory School mental model limits and clouds our thinking. When I am in my most cynical frame of mind, I believe that most people are aware of the Factory School but avoid discussing it because it legitimizes the existing social order. The “quality standards” used in the Factory Schools of the past several decades identified those born into well-educated middle class families as “successful” and those born into less educated poor families as “failures”. Because the “successful” people in our country are the major shareholders in the Factory Schools, they frame the debate on education. It is not surprising that these major shareholders want to “engineer” the Factory School instead of replacing it with a different model, for a different model of schooling might result in a different social order. When I am in a more idealistic frame of mind, I believe that most people are unconscious of this mental model or unaware of how much this model limits our thinking. In that frame of mind, I believe that once the workers and major shareholders realize the effects of the Factory School on our children, they will be open to changing the design. The Factory School was designed to sort and select students in the name of efficiency and the need for trained workers. If a child could not learn using the standard process, the Factory School placed them in the reject pile. The children in Factory Schools know they are in the reject pile. We can call the reject pile “Title One”, “Supplementary Reading”, “Special Education”, “Vocational Education”, or “Career and Technical Education”. The adults running the schools give these reject piles euphemistic names, but the children in our schools know better. They know who is valued and who is a loser.

If we want a world where everyone has a chance to become a successful life-long learner, we need to enter into a public dialogue about abandoning the Factory School. We need enter into a dialogue about finding a way to move Beyond Factory Schools. We need to be released from the Factory School structure that is holding us prisoner.



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