To the Editor:
Progressive educators found a little room to run in the 1960s and 1970s and built common cause by defining a common enemy when it came to education. Before that point, we chose to paint a picture of public education as a factory model. The image was the factory floor, an assembly line, with the children on a conveyor belt being moved from station to station where parts were added according to a blueprint imposed from above and designed for a certain standard product at the end.
Progressives were able to significantly modify the assembly line, to allow a certain amount of individual craftsmanship in the production process. It was a factory capable of considerable customization. Too soon, the cry arose for quantitative accountability for educational outcomes. Craftsmanship and customization are difficult to report on quantitatively. The No Child Left Behind Act, standardized tests, and Common Core State Standards are now the accountability on the factory floor, and the assembly line is back.
Teachers are the labor in this publicly owned bureaucratic factory: the factory workers, the assemblers. It’s a job with low entry requirements, low pay, low stature, and there’s no ladder to move up. Classroom teachers are doing the same thing 20 years later as the day they started.
As long as there’s a factory model of education, there will be a factory model of labor relations; it’s a logical consequence. Management wants specific performance and minimum expense. Labor wants maximum freedom and more pay. Neither side is “wrong.” It’s been going on for so long now that it’s more of a formalized dance than a struggle, going through the motions with no intent of doing real damage. It’s the factory-model mambo, move and shake, play the crowds, and repeat again next year.
The way out is not to pry the two sides apart and give them a lesson on modern business practices. The way out is to stop the music, turn up the lights, and let go of the factory model by popular demand.
Do we hear, in the Occupy movement, the barely formed voice of that demand?
The writer is a retired teacher and school administrator.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Factory’ Education Model Is Not Sustainable