Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

You have seen images like these time and again:



The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a long but surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent  in every aspect of schooling.

Within a half-century, however, the affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees and reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So  recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine:

schools as factories


Of course, schools-as-factories is only one of the many metaphors for schooling used since the onset of tax-supported public schools. Philip Schlechty and Ann Joslin, for example, wrote three decades ago about different images that have been used by both advocates and critics of what schools should be doing:

the school as a factory
the school as a hospital
the school as a log in a pastoral setting with Mark Hopkins on one end and a
             motivated or able student on the other end
the school as a family
the school as a war zone

All of these have a history and were used by both reformers and their opponents. Embraced by different sides of the school reform spectrum at two different moments in time, competing metaphors, like those above, lagged behind or seldom appeared in policy proposals advanced by reformers. The one metaphor that has persisted over the 20th century outstripping the others has been the image of the school-as-a-factory even with its shifting positive to negative connotations.

Why has school-as-factory stuck?

The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction. Of course, current advocates avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory made products. They–yes there are some advocates who even use the phrase “factory model of schooling” or “schools-as-factories” (see here)–talk about the need for schools to be efficiently run (principals and superintendents as managers and CEOs), effectively producing better test scores on international tests than European and Asian competitors, being held accountable for what students achieve and what classroom teachers do, and, most important, cranking out graduates ready to enter the labor market fully equipped with necessary skills and knowledge. Advocates want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability as harming both students and teachers. This cartoon says it all.


The sharp increase in snarky cartoons and irritable comments on state standards derived from Common Core ones plus pervasive standardized testing from both the political left and right, I believe, stem from century-old disputes over what purposes schools serve in a capitalist democracy. This age-old question is seldom openly debated and too often has been lost in the rhetoric and metaphors used by reformers over the past century.

And that, I believe, is the reason why schools-as-factories has stuck as an image as well as a metaphor tossed back and forth by generations of reformers.


Filed under Reforming schools

59 responses to “Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

  1. Reblogged this on The Sausage Machine and commented:
    Deze Larry Cuban met de school-in-beeld-spraak moest ik wel herbloggen. The Sausage Machine is immers ook een metafoor: you’ll have to wait and see what comes out, door swassena mooi verbeeld in zijn ontwerp van affiche voor de vroegere (experimentele) edublog. ‘Machinerieën’, machines allerhande: scheppingen van wiskunde, wetenschap, technologie en ingenieurskunde en -kunst, of als ontwerp, onderwerp of installatie in de kunsten: intrigerend en fascinerend. (Ver)wonderlijk!

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  3. The phrase “human capital” is itself a metaphor well worth water-boarding.

    I think one of the most dangerous shifts in emphasis, displayed most often by politically active individuals interested in schools, is the ease with which they slip from schools serving the needs of individual children, to schools serving the community…or nation.

    There is of course a limited sense in which schools do both, but if it’s ever at the expense of the individual, that seems to me to be as good a definition of school failure as one could wish for.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for commenting.

    • You hit on what has been irking me pretty much since I got in the game 15 years ago. No-scratch that-I remembering thinking this over in high school. Certainly service at the expense of the individual should be suspect. But I have come to suspect that a statistical approach to education may always sacrifice the individual.

      Any time the “target” student is an amalgamation of an acceptable sample, don’t we shear off anything exceptional from that target? Or any point of particular need for that matter?

      Furthermore, if we accept as gospel that numbers don’t lie, then wouldn’t individual “deviation” from the norm become untrue? At the very least, it values the individual less than the statistically accurate student.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Again a great post by Larry Cuban: Why has school-as-factory stuck?

    The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction.

  5. Pingback: Larry Cuban: Schools as Factories: Metaphors Th...

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  12. Let’s cram 30 kids in a classroom. Let’s put one underpaid, semi-trained teacher in charge. (I say semi trained because most teacher ed programs do a very minimal job teaching classroom management. When was the last time you had a class that taught you how to handle a fight in your classroom?) Now let’s pin the blame for student progress on that teacher even though the primary factors influencing that student are out of the teacher’s hands. The concept of the school as a factory can actually be a comfort to administrations and reformers because these “details” can be ignored by seeing only the “big picture”.

    • And what kind of “training” would be appropriate for a teacher? The martinet? the sergeant? the prince? And does one learn “how to handle a fight” in a teacher ed class?
      The factory model goes much further than interchangeable student parts! And the weakness of this critique is that it lets everything else, all the other failures of an industrial model, lie quivering on a table. A Principal is no more adequate as a “martinet’s martinet” than as a “plant manager.” The fear of schools to use technology well, to capture creativity in more than a written paper, to use tests appropriately rather than as absolute outcome measures (for either teachers or students), all reflect the factory model, and that model is closely followed by none other than the “progressive administration” under Duncan and Obama than it was by Coolidge!

  13. larrycuban

    Thanks for the comment, Garth.

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  23. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for the insightful post and the link to my article on schools-as-factories (I got several spirited comments the day your post came out and now realize why, as my post is several years old).

    I’m wondering if “metaphor” is not actually the sense in which many people refer to schools as factories. Metaphors are inherently, well, metaphorical, whereas most people who like to use the term perjoratively seem to be using the term rhetorically—as a smear rather than an illuminating comparison.

    Here’s the difference: Imagine if a classroom were described as a “beehive of activity.” Most people would assume this means that the students are hard at work, not that they are enslaved for the purposes of food production. If we only used the term perjoratively, the metaphor would lose its usefulness.

    In my article (linked on my name), I treat factories as useful (though imperfect) metaphors for schools, because there’s something to be learned from the comparison. I don’t think anyone is saying that schools should be exactly like factories, but it’s useful to think about which parallels we do and don’t find acceptable, because some parallels are inevitable whenever you’re examining an organization with hundreds or thousands of people.

    When people are critical of the (rhetorical) “factory model of schooling” they are usually advocating for a particular type of reform, such as eliminating standardized testing, that they believe would make schooling feel more humane and less industrial.

    The irony, to me, is that most of these suggestions would simply make the factory a more poorly run factory, not less a factory. Nearly all reforms advocated via anti-factory rhetoric fit perfectly well within the way schools are typically structured.

    I believe we can make schools both more humane and better-run by considering the metaphor in all its dimensions, rather than using rhetorical smears to end critical thinking and discussion.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Justin, for your comment. I agree that each metaphor used to describe schools can, and often does, contain a positive or negative connotation. Your example of the “beehive” is on the money to make that point. You are, however, swimming upstream against the current when you analyze the schools-as-factories metaphor systematically and see some positives in the comparison. That is the way it is today. It wasn’t that way a century ago.

      • Absolutely swimming upstream 🙂

        I stick with it mostly to make the point that, without some aspects of factory thinking, you simply can’t keep hundreds of kids safe and learning. Most anti-factory rhetoric is a critique of something much more specific, but it’s easier to complain about the whole approach than propose a specific, targeted solution.

        In other words, “factory model” schooling is unavoidable except in the most extreme unschooling or homeschooling scenarios, it brings us many benefits, and it’s usually not, of itself, the problem.

        Thanks for your reply.

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  38. We have a book of educational comics that we recently posted on Huffington Post that speaks directly and visually to this. Check it out there or at our site at
    Larry Paros

  39. Reblogged this on Changed ED and commented:
    Larry Cuban explains why the ‘school as factory’ metaphor sticks.

    His answer: it works for liberal reformers and conservative reformers.

    Liberal reformers, like Maria Montesorri and Ken Robinson, use the factory model to show how it dehumanizes kids, strips them of their individuality, and aims to produce a dull citizenry.

    Conservative reformers, like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, use the factory model to show how this inherent infrastructure can be used to apply scientific management to improve every aspect of the school.

  40. Reblogged this on Magnitudes of dissonance and commented:
    This connects with my own exploration of the Schools as Factories Metaphors on LinkedIn in this article “Work Transformed in the Knowledge Era” ( and in this article “What’s the School Biz?” ( However, this article has more important information around the origins of the metaphor–tracking it back to Professor Ellwood P. Cubberly, and how it was widely accepted and promoted “by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more more bang for each dollar spent in every aspect of schooling”. It makes me wonder if the War Effort and returning GIs were a factor.

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