Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Triumph of the School as Factory

It has been well over one hundred years since this nation embarked on the breathtakingly ambitious venture of universal public schooling. The costs of this endeavor quickly proved to be extraordinarily burdensome, and it was decided early on to carry it out in as cost effective a manner as possible. The consequence of this push for efficiency was public schools modeled on factories with an emphasis on mass production and cost-effectiveness, rather than democracy or individuality.

For the most part, today’s public schools still are factories. In fact, the organization and management that typifies the most unenlightened factories characterizes much, if not most, public schooling. Management is top-down all the way. The federal government sets basic rules. State authorities implement them while adding many more rules. School boards make decisions based on these federal and state rules plus fiscal and political realities. The superintendent executes the will of the board. Principals tell teachers what to do and when to do it; and they, in turn, direct the youngsters in similar manner.

Sometimes this industrial approach produces monstrously undemocratic results. A past Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, for example, boasted to the press that she could tell them what was happening in every classroom in the city at any given moment. What was actually happening was administratively induced chaos because the standardized, teacher-proof curriculum was incapable of accommodating individual differences. For instance, second grade teachers found they were forbidden to use anything other than second grade readers and the canned lesson of the day even if some of those second grade kids still couldn’t read. Similarly, seventh grade math teachers were forced to ‘teach’ algebra to kids who couldn’t even do fractions or long division, and so forth.

With this superintendent, as with many others, autonomy, freedom and choice are low, or non-existent, priorities. The industry is focused on standardization, teacher proofing and measured outcomes. We should also remember that there is a powerful new restriction on autonomy, freedom, choice, and democracy in schooling. With its emphasis on measurable results, quality control, instrumental and extrinsic motivations, atomization and fragmentation of knowledge, No Child Left Behind represents the near total triumph of factory model schooling in contemporary America. In short, the whole weight of the federal government arc welds the school as factory in place as never before.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

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