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MSPnet Blog: ““Factory schools” part ii”

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posted March 5, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

This is the second in a series of three posts reflecting on the phrase “factory model of schools” (or its variants), and its use in current education policy debates.

(Why do I give hospitality to  this bee in my bonnet? My answer:  The exploration of the metaphors used in policy debates is important because the mental structures we set up as we diagnose a problem, without testing the assumptions that are built into them, tend to affect the kinds of prescriptions for improvement we design, foreclosing on the answers to the problems.  The importation of metaphors from one field into another may enliven or even enlighten, but that does not mean that they also are statements of fact. Yet they very often end up being taken for granted as part of a rationale for advocacy, and people stop asking about what they are actually claiming.)

To revive the theme, here is a quotation from a Rick Hess article in Edweek last spring which helps set the tone for an attack on “factory-style management, ” and includes a hint at a solution to the problems thus identified (in shorthand):

In the early 1900s, influenced by education psychologist Edward Thorndike and scientific management guru Frederick Taylor, proponents of progressive education worked to bring the same standardization and routine to education that they admired in industry and business. The problem, explained Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University from 1917-1933 and, in many ways, the father of modern school administration, had been that, before 1900, schools had been like “a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency.”

In short, progressives worked hard to import the best practices of private industry to American education. (This is why the familiar school model bears such an uncanny resemblance to the early-twentieth-century factory.) That model made some sense at the time, helping to manage a massive expansion of schooling in a world lacking modern data tools and communications technology.

Point #1:  In at least the last century of US  history, “private industry” (and its deus ex machina, the Market) has been the most frequently recommended source of new “best practices” for ed reform. “Science” has been a close second, but “scientific” solutions tend in the end to be couched in technocratic terms, the terms of “scientific management” — IMHO, “science as inquiry” has been a thing (sometimes) to be mandated but not actually practiced, by educational systems.    Why is it, do you think, that economics, rather than the sciences of learning, is so often seen as the place to look to improve learning and teaching?

Point #2 Technology:  It is  interesting that the strategies that Hess, Rose, Gates, and others advocate  for replacing the “factory” align uncannily well with current market pre-occupations. That this may not be a coincidence is suggested by historical evidence that successive waves of educational technology have been sold as the way to the same solution, with little evidence that they deliver in any significant way.  Of course, new technologies must be investigated for their possible value in education, but the urgent cycle of “buy and install before investigating” sounds very much like the preferred market approach to introducing new products — do just enough research to assure short-term safety and possible value, ignore externalities and long-term consequences.*

It seems to me that only under some assumptions about the role and value of education does it make sense to re-align education in every generation so as to reflect some current favored management trends (in some but by far not all industries).  In every generation, too, the “make education more like industry” is sweetened by new proposed values.   Currently, a common opposite of the “factory model of education” is “personalized education.”**

New technologies, particularly technologies that offer “personalization,” are positioned as the future, the way to “modernize” schools by letting students move at their own pace through the curriculum. Is it worth considering why these are precisely the arguments that technicians have been making for teaching machines for almost a century? Also, what is the evidence so far about how (or under what conditions) something like these benefits can be achieved, and how school systems, teachers, and others have to adapt?

Next post, I’ll  carry on with some reflections on personalization in education, and what at least some research tells us.

* I feel a need to assert that I am no Luddite! I work at Technical Education Research Centers, and the contributions of technology to teaching and learning have been a  key element in our science ed work.

**Ironically, “Factory education” in the heyday of Thorndike et al. turns out upon investigation to have been invented in part to support just the kinds of personalization that we are being told necessitates massive  investments in technology.





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