Education Opinion

What Money Managers Could Learn From Educators

By Susan Graham — May 29, 2010 4 min read
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I’m not a regular reader of Forbes Magazine, but because I am an educator I saw the article, What Educators Are Learning From Money Managers , and I was open to learning something new.

Here’s how Daniel Fisher describes Brownsville Elementary School

Dressed in identical uniforms of green polo shirts and khakis, students walk carefully along tape strips in the halls before sitting down at their desks. Except for controlled bursts of excitement, as when a teacher asks kids to yell out their goals for a lesson, classrooms are hushed in concentration. Children perform tasks like organizing papers on their desks and placing pencils next to their books with precision... From quiz scores to homework and attendance records, every detail of a student's performance at Brownsville Elementary is fed into computer databases where teachers and administrators examine the constantly unfolding record and quickly adjust lesson plans and individual teaching strategies in response.

What seems to appeal to Fisher is the idea that with enough data and enough standardization, we could achieve total quality control in the classroom. All students could learn and act and think and perform in a consistent manner. They would almost as good as robots! Apparently Fisher believes that Taylorism is the silver bullet that will fix public education. I suspect that he has filtered what he sees and what he hears in Alliance Schools through the lens of profitability. Charters such as Brownsville might be part of what Joel Klein refers to as an “education portfolio” but even a novice investor knows to diversify. There are lessons about productivity and data that educators should be learning from money managers. But there are also some cautionary lessons about Taylorism that might help education practitioners (who, I might point out, are not the same creatures as education industrialists) understand what is happening to our schools and why it is both powerful and very possibly misguided.

Henry Ford is often given credit the industrialization of America because his assembly lines minimized cost. But Ford was only building on the scientific management concepts of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) implemented at Bethlehem Steel to maximize profits. At first glance they seem similar, but the differences matter.


aims to achieve maximum job fragmentation to minimize skill requirements and job learning time separates execution of work from work-planning separates direct labor from indirect labor replaces rule of thumb productivity estimates with precise measurements introduces time and motion study for optimum job performance, cost accounting, tool and work station design makes possible payment-by-result method of wage determination. Named after the US industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) who in his 1911 book 'Principles Of Scientific Management' laid down the fundamental principles of large-scale manufacturing through assembly-line factories. He emphasized gaining maximum efficiency from both machine and worker, and maximization of profit for the benefit of both workers and management. Although rightly criticized for alienating workers by (indirectly but substantially) treating them as mindless, emotionless, and easily replicable factors of production, Taylorism was a critical factor in the unprecedented scale of US factory output that led to Allied victory in Second World War, and the subsequent US dominance of the industrial world.

Taylorism found its home in the 1920s and 30s in the Harvard School of Business. In the the March 2010 edition of the Harvard Business School Alumni magazine I found this in an article titled, The Lords of Strategy: Inventing Business’s Great Game.

Greater Taylorism has chewed its way across the corporate landscape to virtually everywhere large companies practice twenty-first-century capitalism, which means on just about every continent. Its appetite for more numbers, more data, seems only to increase with the computer power available to crunch those numbers. And it has become steadily less patient for results, in part because now you can get the numbers back from the market overnight. Private equity firms, with their short time horizons and relentless pressure for results, are merely the latest shock troops for Greater Taylorism's ineluctable advance....

So there you have it. The Taylorism principles of “maximizing profits” by removing decision making from the hands of experts to the hands of managers has run its course in the steel industry, the auto industry, the oil industry, and Wall Street. And now the economists have become Education Reformers ready to play their game again by applying the same outdated Industrial Age methodology to “producing a 21st century workforce for the Information Age.” They market a 20th century industrial production model that has low-level skilled workers producing interchangeable human widgets as cheaply and efficiently as possible while decision making is handled by a management team with little or no real involvement with the product, its design, or its purpose. In the meantime, they “improve” on the workers’ lack of discipline and motivation by directing his activity and providing rewards for success.

In his Forbes article, Fisher points out that “American education is, as always, in a state of crisis.” Either he believes that our schools have always been weak or else he understands that education has always been and will remain incredibly complex and fluid in nature. I acknowledge that many of our schools need to do better, but I would point out that if life-long learning is our goal, then there will always be room for improvement. In concluding What Educators Are Learning From Money Managers Fisher states

It's lamentable how many defective products the U.S. education industry sends out of it's $660 billion factory. But it's encouraging to see that there are ways to boost the output.

May I suggest a few things that Money Managers Can Learn From Educators?

Schools are not factories; children (even other people’s children) are more than marketable products; exemplary teaching is not production work; Pavlovian training does not produce innovation. Taylorism may have worked great in the early days of American industrial expansion. It may have continued to work in pre-WWII as war is nearly always profitable to business. It may have worked in the post-WWII period while the rest of the world was recovering from damages and America held the advantage in almost unlimited natural resources, intact infrastructure, and cheap immigrant labor. But based on the last decade of data from Wall Street and Main Street--and data is the foundation of Taylorism---Greater Taylorism strategies for the 21st century haven’t been working out so well.

Perhaps it’s time for a new model. In education many of us involve ourselves in something we call reflective practice. We use data to inform our work, but we remember that educated children, not data, are the product of our work. Maybe we could collaborate. Maybe money managers could read Education Week and Teacher Magazine and teachers could read Forbes and Harvard School of Business Alumni Newsletter and then we could learn from them and they could learn from us. Maybe with our combined knowledge and skills we could work as partners to improve public education. I wonder if they’re interested in learning from each other? Or do they think they already know all the answers?

Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student. George Iles

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.