The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “modern cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools.
Consider Amazon, a company that earned little revenue in its early years yet in 2018 was valued at over $700 billion. Using technology to achieve swift purchases and delivery to customers account in part to its “phenomenal success.” Amazon’s quest for efficiency would cause Frederick Winslow Taylor to applaud.
One observer, for example, reported in 2015 on the newly-opened one-million square feet Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville (NJ) where orders are “fulfilled.”
Upon arrival, each new product is identified using a computer vision system that catalogues it rapidly, feeding its weight and dimensions into a central tracking system. At the heart of the building, items stored on tall, square shelves are kept stocked by humans working with a team of 2,000 squat orange robots. The robots zip around the storage area, picking up shelves and either arranging them in neat rows for storage or bringing them over to the human workers, who stack or pick from them. Further along the fulfillment line, workers charged with packing up orders for shipping are automatically given the optimal size of shipping box and even the correct amount of packing tape. Before those boxes are sent to trucks, a system weighs them to make sure the correct products are inside.
Amazon updated the century-old practices of Taylorism 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” (see here, p. 501)
Turn now to schooling. The current incarnation of “Taylorism” and focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago in the wake of A Nation at Risk report. The application of business practices and lingo under the umbrella of scientifically acquired evidence reappeared anew albeit with different labels.
Since the 1980s, reforms that called for uniform curriculum standards and increased testing while holding districts and schools responsible for student outcomes aimed to harness education to a stronger economy. With the increased power of computers to gather and analyze data, new techniques to prod schools to teach more, better, faster, and cheaper appeared (see here, here, and here) *
The frequent gathering and parsing of test data, school-by-school, district-by-district, state-by-state, and nationally became a major enterprise. The lure of increased productivity and efficiency through evidence-based decision-making in light of huge (and available) data-sets has led to increasing use of algorithms to grade performance of individual schools, evaluating teacher performance, and customizing online lessons for each student (see here and here).
States and districts now evaluate the performance of schools based on test scores, growth in achievement, graduation rates, and other measures and then assign rankings by issuing a grade to each school ranging from an A to a F, awarding one to five stars, or similar systems. Such grades signal parents which schools are high-performing and attractive to enroll their children and which schools are to be avoided—an efficient way of sorting out schools especially since parental choice in public schools has expanded.
Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “effective,” using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g., earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.
Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers (most districts graded 90-plus percent of teachers satisfactory) led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency.
Within classrooms, both effectiveness and efficiency have come to the fore in customizing lessons for individual students. Earlier efforts to introduce “teaching machines” in the 1920s and later in the 1950s testify to the history of educators seeking ways to tailor teaching and learning to fit individual students. With the spread of faster and cheaper technologies since the 1990s, new classroom models of integrating devices and online programs took hold in many schools. The growth of huge data-sets of information on student performance in math, reading, and other school subjects also segued into a Niagara of software spilling over schools in the past two decades. The rationale for extensive buying and distributing of new devices and software has been to make teaching and student learning faster, better, and individualized.
The U.S. Secretary of Education made this point in 2010:
Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add‐on or for a high‐tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.
By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.
Those sentiments reign supreme among policy elites when it comes to schooling. Efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness a holy trinity to earlier generations of educators remain sacred to current school officials. Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money is precisely what Frederick Winslow Taylor would have recommended (see here and here).
This recent surge of technology-enhanced schooling called “personalized learning” merges the polestars of school reform since the 1890s. First, there is a reunion of efficiency and effectiveness, and second, the two wings of the progressive movement—“administrative” and “pedagogical” reformers, under different aliases have reappeared, reunited, and now use similar vocabularies.
Personalized learning as both efficient and effective: Past and present
Today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” might salute their yesteryear Progressive cousins. A century ago, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist expert in testing who was a doyen of efficiency in schooling.
A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about developing the entire child and using a range of cognitive and social skills to benefit students and society. Thorndike trumped Dewey.
Now in 2018 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of Deweyan reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students who go on to lucrative careers and help their communities.
What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.
These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.
Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.
No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group lessons and “factory-like schools” has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated? (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.
The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives in a context where individualizing instruction and being held accountable for meeting district standards occur at the same time. For some voices that challenge such a resurrection, see here, here, and here.
Yes, these differences among reformers resemble another instance of a family fight but in a very different context than existed a century ago. These efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives. Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and structured activities for student collaboration where thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning” has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.
Laura Chapman pointed out a piece I had not seen that appeared in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008. Researchers priced out the cost of different school subjects similar to the quest of early 20th century “efficiency” experts. The first paragraph reads:
How much does it cost to provide a high school math course? What about remedial English? An Advanced Placement (AP) course in history? As the economic outlook continues to darken, school districts will be looking for ways to cut costs, and they will no doubt wrestle with some difficult issues.