Efficiency-Minded Reformers Today Draw from Efficiency-Minded Reformers of a Century Ago

The crusade among reformers for data-driven decision-making in schools and evangelizing new technologies didn’t just begin in the past decade. Its roots go back to Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s application of scientific methods a century ago to what workers do each day to increase their efficiency and productivity. In the decade before World War I and through the 1930s, borrowing from the business sector particularly manufacturing where Taylorism reigned, institutions as varied as farming, medical practice, municipal government, justice, and schools adopted Taylor’s techniques of time-and-motion studies to increase employee efficiency and find the “one best way.”

Consider Louis Brandeis, a lawyer who fought for unions, the 10-hour work day for women, and similar causes in the first decade of the 20th century. He believed in the superiority of science in gathering facts to make an argument rather than one’s opinions. Brandeis coined the phrase “scientific management, according to his biographer, and in 1914 wrote the foreword for a book written by one of Taylor’s followers called Primer of Scientific Management. Like Taylor, he saw the merits of applying scientific processes to labor and management. As a lawyer who presented briefs before state and federal courts, his biographer wrote, Brandeis brought together “the need for facts … the need to mitigate some of the harsher aspects of industrialization and the use of law as a social instrument of social policy” (p. 217). Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court justice; he served between 1916 and1939.

Like lawyer Brandeis and business and civic leaders who enlisted in the movement to use “scientific management” in every day tasks, educators including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to it. “Educational engineers” created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, checklists of what made a school building good, and measured anything that moved or was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives” who wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant student-centered learning in schools–adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency.

These “administrative progressives” saw “scientific management” with its meticulous registering of statistics applied to every single task as the Holy Grail, a system that would bring standards, productivity, regularity, and order to public schools.

In Raymond Callahan’s Education and The Cult Of Efficiency (1962), he documents Newton (MA) superintendent Frank Spaulding telling fellow superintendents at the annual conference of the National Education Association in 1913 how he “scientifically managed” his district (Review of Callahan book). The crucial task, Spaulding told his peers, was for district officials to measure school “products or results” and thereby compare “the efficiency of schools in these respects.” What did he mean by products?

I refer to such results as the percentage of children of each year of age [enrolled] in school; the average number of days attendance secured annually from each child; the average length of time required for each child to do a given definite unit of work…(p. 69).

Spaulding and other superintendents measured in dollars and cents whether the teaching of Latin was more efficient than the teaching of English, Algebra, or history. These “administrative progressives” recorded how much it cost to teach vocational subjects vs. academic subjects.

What Spaulding described in Newton for increased efficiency (and effectiveness) spread swiftly among school boards, superintendents, and administrators.  Academic experts hired by districts produced huge amounts of data in the 1920s and 1930s describing and analyzing every nook and cranny of buildings, how much time principals spent with students and parents, and what teachers did in daily lessons.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful data to inform policy decisions about district and school effectiveness continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to schooling appears in the current romance with Big Data and the onslaught of models that use algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “good” and which ones are inefficient, i.e., “bad” by reporting students’ test scores teacher-by-teacher as has  occurred in many big city districts such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified School District are not shockers to anyone familiar with the history of the business model in schooling. That model of competition, incentives, productivity, and efficiency has seeped into the bloodstream of schooling over the past century. Those crude efficiency studies of yesteryear are no more. But the ideas of Taylorism are present today in “standardization, the split of planning from doing, … the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency, and productivity to the exclusion of all else” (p. 501, Kanigel)

So the new “administrative progressives,” drawn from efficiency-minded wealthy donors, top state and federal policymakers, business and civic leaders, have pushed for Core State Standards, abolishing teacher tenure laws, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, charters, and online instruction as policies to make U.S. schools efficient and productive.

I say that Taylorism is alive and far too well in 2014.



Filed under Reforming schools

8 responses to “Efficiency-Minded Reformers Today Draw from Efficiency-Minded Reformers of a Century Ago

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. It is always nice to see that someone with great creditability has taken this stance. I would suggest that you build in the following source in any future discussions…

    Seashore, R. (1939). Work methods: An often neglected factor underlying individual differences. Psychological Review, 46, 123-141.

  3. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Nihil sub sole novum, or nothing new under the sun as Larry Cuban explains that many present efficiency minded reform is actually classis Taylorism.

  4. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Useful Posts & Articles On Education Policy | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

  5. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

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