Home > Uncategorized > The “Reform” Movement’s Mislabelling of “Factory Schools”

The “Reform” Movement’s Mislabelling of “Factory Schools”

Audrey Watters, a thoughtful writer who opposes the “reform” movement in public education, wrote a lengthy essay lamenting that movement’s misuse of the term “factory school” and the misinterpretation of history associated with that misuse. In one of the opening paragraphs of “The Invented History of the Factory Model of Education” Ms. Watters writes:

One of the most common ways to criticize our current system of education is to suggest that it’s based on a “factory model.” An alternative condemnation: “industrial era.” The implication is the same: schools are woefully outmoded.

Ms. Watters then outlines her perspective on the history of education, emphasizing that contrary to most accounts our schools were not designed on “the Prussian model” and were never intended to train factory workers. In that regard she is correct…. and, upon reflection, I have also also concluded that the term “factory school model” has become nearly as shopworn and meaningless as “thinking outside the box”. The problem with the term as it is used by the likes of Arne Duncan is he is— without irony or self-awareness— condemning public education because it is based on the pretext that there is one right way to deliver instruction and it can be discovered through careful engineering research… much in the same way that an automobile assembly line can be made efficient and error proof through testing and successive iterations of incremental improvement. This TQM notion of delivering instruction is prima facie ridiculous since each and every student who attends school comes with a different background and, therefore, different needs and different motivations.

My basis for criticizing our current model is based primarily on Raymond Callahan’s history of education titled “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”. In this book he describes how businessmen in the early 1900s believed the imposition of their management theories on schools would yield low cost highly productive enterprises that would help them sort and select future employees. To the best of my knowledge from reading about public education for several years, prior to that time the influence of business on education was minimal and, based on my reading and personal experience, since that time the influence of businessmen has increased.

There is a place for businesslike thinking in public education. A well functioning school district uses sound business practices in personnel management, financial record keeping, purchasing, planning, program assessment, and logistics. But— contrary to the mental models politicians and businessmen want to use— schools are not businesses and education is not a commodity. Education cannot be standardized and measured in the same way as automobile assembly lines or the floor plans of fast food restaurants.

So if the term “factory school model” is meaningless in describing why schools are outmoded, what can take its place? The term I would suggest is “standardized”…. as in:

One of the most common ways to criticize our current system of education is to suggest that it’s based on a “factory model.” “standardized“. An alternative condemnation: “industrial era.” “one size fits all”. The implication is the same: schools are woefully outmoded.

If the problem with schools is that they are based on the pretext that there is a “standard model” that works everywhere and can be measured using a standardized test, we are clearly pursuing the wrong solution. Maybe a change of terms will do the trick… but the mental model of sorting-and-selecting based on “standardized tests” is going to die hard because it tends to reinforce the current order of things and those who were validated by the model will be hard pressed to abandon it.

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