Why Has the “School as Factory” Metaphor Persisted?

Why has the image of tax-supported public schools looking like and operating as factories stuck?




In an earlier post, I traced the history of the metaphor since the early 1900s and its 180-degree switch from a positive to negative meaning. Over the past century, the metaphor of school-as-factory has served the interests of two sets of perennial reformers (yes there is a third group that borrows from each side–see below– but I will stick with the two major groupings).

The Incrementalists

There are reformers (e.g., policy elites, practitioners, parents, researchers, and donors) who see the age-graded school and its standardization of curriculum, instruction, and student behavior in need of improvement to make it work as it was intended, particularly for poor and minority students.The purpose of schooling is to prepare the young for a demanding and ever-changing workplace and future civic duties.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan made that point initially in 2010 and again in 2018:

About 100 years ago, America made secondary education in high school compulsory. That was almost unprecedented, a massive leap forward, and it drove a lot of our economic boom over the past 100 years. The problem is we haven’t moved past that and we haven’t adjusted the model. Obviously, the world is radically different from that time, but unfortunately education isn’t much different. And you see other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us. Not only have the skills needs changed dramatically, but we now have a globally competitive economy, a flat world. It’s no longer Iowa versus Indiana versus Montana for jobs, we’re competing with India and China and Singapore and everywhere else. That’s the world where our kids – my kids – are going to grow up into, and we’re never going to go back the opposite direction. It’s only going to accelerate….

[W]e were able to get high school graduation rates to an all-time high of 84 percent, which we were very proud of but obviously that’s nowhere near high enough. The current administration’s goal should be up to get that 84 up to 90 percent. Third, we should make sure that 100 percent of those high school graduates are college ready, with higher standards. And then fourth, we should try and lead the world again in college completion. That’s four-year universities, that’s two-year community colleges, it’s trade, technical and vocational training.


Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy. We should unite behind goals and have lots of vigorous debate around the strategies to achieve those goals. What works well in Montana may work differently in California. Something in Detroit may be radically different. So we should have lots of flexibility and local innovation around the best means and we should see what works best in rural communities and in urban communities and on Native American reservations, but we should unite around those goals. No one has a monopoly of good ideas.


“[W]e haven’t adjusted the model,” Duncan says. That has been the basic belief driving this set of reformers for decades. From smaller class size to Common Core Curriculum standards to better trained teachers, the incrementalists call for the age-graded school to be a more productive machine of instruction—higher test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions–to do what it is supposed to do in the 21st century.





Of course, incrementalist reformers avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory made products. They talk about the need for schools to be efficiently run (principals and superintendents as managers and CEOs), producing better test scores on domestic and international tests, 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 the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the workplace. These reformers want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

The Fundamentalists

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability that are central features of the age-graded school as harming both students and teachers. This cartoon says it all.













These critics who often use of the metaphor of school-as-factory dismissively want to overhaul, even abolish the age-graded school. They want schools to be places where children are treated as whole human beings. Schools are places where children of different ages work together on projects that draw from many subject areas and are connected to the world outside of the schoolhouse. Such schools are places where teachers work in teams using devices and software that focus on content and skills that can be mastered by individual students working at different paces. Schools where creativity and problem solving are central to a curriculum designed by teachers and students and not the state.

Do such schools exist? Some do.

Scattered around the country, many of these schools are private (see here and here) and some are public (see here, here, here, and here).

Clearly, then, Incrementalists dominate school reform in the the early decades of the 21st century. Fundamentalist reformers are strong on rhetoric and plans for change but, for the most part, instances of these schools are confined to the margins of public schools in  districts across the nation (see here).

The Borrowers

While there are many practical schools leaders and staffs across the U.S. who borrow ideas and practices from both Incrementalists and Fundamentalists to create hybrids, such borrowing of this-and-that program and procedure, it turns out, only reinforces existing age-graded structures. Well-intentioned and honest reformers make changes that end up preserving its stability. That is not intended as a criticism but an observation of what occurs time and again.




Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

14 responses to “Why Has the “School as Factory” Metaphor Persisted?

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Constraints on the formation and funding of non-standardized public schools have been imposed at the federal level by NCLB and now ESSA, the latter with tweaks that put states in charge of policy matters, but with no escape from testing mandates or draconian the state legislation such as mandated A-F grades for schools and districts. These constraints, and a reification of data-drive decisions in public education, are providing incentives to private entrepreneurs who want to be known as the founders of “innovative” schools, even when the founders and funders have more dollars than educational sense. The persistence of the factory model as a sterotype also serves the interests of profit seekers in the “personalized” education business, including online education.

  2. Educating Human Potential

    I appreciate that this is an observation of the two solitudes in education, even if they merge slightly at times, but how can we upend the incrementalist approach to favor the fundamentalist, when parents, educators, and policymakers make their decisions based on past experiences? I have observed the tinkering of the incrementalist philosophy for years believing that this approach puts our children and society at future disadvantages.

  3. Educating Human Potential

    Reblogged this on Educating Human Potential and commented:
    How do we avoid tinkering with the incrementalist approach and push further toward an effective fundamentalist approach like Montessori?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the question.There are schools that have done so–see links in article. Why and how they did so is instructive revealing that context and cadres of like minded teachers and parents, and political savvy can make (and sustain) such changes.

  4. EB

    Here is the challenge to those who would break out of the “factory” model or the age-graded model: any alternative that is proposed will have to be as transparent (to parents, teachers, taxpayers) as the current model(s) are. With all of its shortcomings, the current model is clear to stakeholders, who can know what is supposed to be taught (and learned) at each grade level ()and therefore theoretically allows for accountability) Buying into a model that is variable, individual-oriented, and competency-based currently requires people to buy into a plan that looks from the outside like a black box. Many (including me) fully support the benefits of making the sea change, but want to see how it could be understood and evaluated.

  5. T. Lobman

    Another related explanation for the persistence of the factory model: the wave of rationalism that swept over government and the non-profit and foundation sector, beginning about 1970. Stanford created a PhD program with the MBA first-year, curriculum counting as credit. Universities like USF and other business schools created public and non-profit sector-oriented management programs, and policy programs inspired by the Kennedy School at Harvard, In the 80’s and onward, business management books like In Search of Excellence appeared on Superintendent’s desks. Terms such as “investing” and “bottom line” come into frequent use. Twenty years later, the venture capital/tech sector.added momentum to the first wave. Donors and boards pressed staffs into “strategic planning,” aimed at producing “business plans” and the promise of “social impact.” All this obviously boosted the importance of numerical measurement of student progress and the factors that influence it. And the push-back.

    Are schools, districts, states more business-like? Is that helping students?

  6. Chester Draws

    There’s no need to upend the factory model, because it doesn’t represent the reality of modern schooling anyway.

    Yes, you are graded by age, but it ends about there. Different students work at different rates in the same classroom. They don’t all do the same subjects anyway. There are different tracks for different students.

    A complete atomisation, so every student is following their own track is simply not possible. No system could be organised to keep tabs on who was doing what — and more kids would slip through than the current system.

    Schools are places where children of different ages work together on projects that draw from many subject areas

    This is dangerous.

    Many subjects are hierarchical, and if your break the logic they become basically unteachable. You can learn factoring until you can multiply terms, which you cannot do if you cannot multiply etc.

    There is ample evidence that teaching skills in context is bad for learning. If you teach trigonometry as part of unit of building houses, then students will associate trigonometry with building and be poor at applying it to other contexts. If you teach it free standing, then you can later introduce a range of contexts. This annoys the progressives, that doesn’t make it untrue.

    Children simply cannot apply their knowledge across boundaries like adults can, and teaching them in multiple subject areas simultaneously merely confuses them. Notoriously the “rote” learning of East Asia breeds children who do better at solving problems in context than the problem based learning of progressive education. That is because it is a lot easier to think creatively if your knowledge base is strong. Having good ideas is useless if you lack the skills to apply those ideas in practice.

    Imagine going to University and being told that your law degree would not teach constitutional, civil, criminal and family law separately. Instead you would have a mix of all, with ethics and etc chucked in as well, in a great steamy mash. You’d learn nothing well. Compartmentalisation is actually very effective when not overdone. Even more so when learners are novices.

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