Schools are not factories, though we as a society seem unwilling to truly accept this. Probing into the past of public education reveals that serious flaws of today’s schools--large class sizes, formulaic curricula, overburdened teachers, narrow conceptions of what should be taught, how children learn and how to assess it--have direct and eerie antecedents in a much earlier era of public education. In a troubling irony, our widespread historical ignorance within the education realm has allowed us to come full circle and essentially repeat in these early years of the 21st century what students endured at great cost in the early years of the 20th century.
In the 1910’s our country was captivated (or horrified) by the promise of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” approach to wringing out the most from every production setting. Through “efficiency studies” that broke down every step in every task and set a target standard of for literally every movement, Taylor’s methods were used to completely refactor the labor process. It’s old news that time and motion studies ruled that period, forever changing the nature of work from railroads to factories, but it may be surprising to many that those same “scientific management” strategies were also applied in that period to public schools, similarly and permanently altering our approach to education our nation’s children.


While in the manufacturing arena Taylor promised more profit for the same amount of investment, in the public realm, his approach came to be seen as a strategy for dealing with the (real or perceived) misuse of public funds in public institutions, thus allowing “scientific management” to jump the commercial barrier and enter the realm of social services. According to education historian Raymond Callahan, combined with legitimate concerns about the quality of education, the stage was then set for the subsequent derailing of the purpose and practices of public schools, replacing an education mission, with a business or commercial one, shifting the focus from learning to efficiency. Though profits were not the goal, the greatest “value” per dollar expended was, a return on investment demanded by the public and by the government. Heightening this attitude was the ascendant prestige of business and businessmen in our culture and the weak political position of superintendents and other school administrators.

All of this coalesced to reframe schools as sites of production that through efficiency studies could be transformed into regular sets of programs and behaviors, producing more units of value per dollar. Students were the raw material and efficiency was measured by the amount of “units of work” students could complete in a fixed period of time, for instance correct “repetitions” of arithmetic. For any given subject, school administrators could calculate how much money was required to produce one “unit of work” and could decide based on financial terms, which subjects resulted in more units, and were therefore more efficient (i.e. cheaper) and which could be eliminated based on cost. With such metrics, teachers could be compared, as well as schools. Everything was interchangeable and everything was reduced to dollar-level comparisons. Getting the most “units” of educational output was more important than the quality of the education children received.

Although no one is bold enough to refer to “units of work” these days, we have much in common with the Taylorized schools described above. Large class sizes, large teaching loads, imprecise and inaccurate standard evaluations of students, teachers and schools that resulted in simple numbers and quality statements to demonstrate value to the public all have present day equivalents. In this era, we have a movement of parents who are waging political battles to bring back small classes, we have teachers overwhelmed with large class sizes and teaching loads, and we have had over a decade of new forms of indexes and measures to superficially sum up a student, teacher or school. The yearly “Index of Efficiency” of the 1900’s that purported to reflect year-to-year improvement in educational output is a direct relative of the Adequate Yearly Progress measure of No Child Left Behind. Evaluating teachers by the “efficiency” of their students in their school work is no different than today’s flawed Value Added Models (VAM) for assessing teachers that have been debunked but have yet to be eliminated.

The factory model has persisted over these past hundred years, despite some serious push back along the way. Changes in teacher education, huge leaps in understanding about child development, an acknowledgment of various learning styles, and the still insufficient but increasing acceptance of the need to embrace the different cultures of students and value the knowledge of those cultures are all hallmarks of an improved modern era.

But other factors work to keep our schools stuck in an industrial mode. The highly profitable educational commodities market is one. The standardized school means that selling inputs to that factory is highly profitable. Policy and business objectives overlap, with one helping the other. The valuing of the business ethic over the educational ethic remains. The federal government’s push of competitive approaches and a market ideology are examples of this. School districts themselves increasingly have the hallmarks of corporations. Transparency is limited, there is a focus on public relations as opposed to true engagement, and families have been recast as customers. Even teachers unions are stuck in this old industrial model, though transformations are occurring. In places like Chicago and at this very moment Seattle, the recent pushback against detrimental practices is coming because of sub-groups within unions that are pushing their organizations forward into a new mode of partnerships with parents and community organizations.

The moral of this history lesson is that business imperatives and the related factory model have had a long stranglehold on our schools and have not resulted in the educational system our children deserve. We need to resurrect this history and bring it out as a valuable piece of data to counter the newest efforts to derail education in favor of business values, as opposed to educational values.
Callahan closed his analysis by pointing to a future state of education that we have yet to achieve decades later:

“Until every child has part of his work in small classes or seminars with fine teachers who have a reasonable teaching load, we will not really have given the American high school, or democracy for that matter, a fair trial. To do this, America will need to break with its traditional practice, strengthened so much in the age of efficiency, of asking how our schools can be operated most economically and begin asking instead what steps need to be take to provide an excellent education for our children. We must face the fact that there is no cheap, easy way to educate a human being and that a free society cannot endure without education men.”


Acknowledging and then dismantling the factory model of education is a first step.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.