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).
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.
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.
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).
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.