Monday, November 8, 2010

The Death of Public School Factories

Critics and reformers alike invoke the factory system metaphor to point out the greatest flaws in our public education system. In the 21st century, the factory is an anachronism and a factory system of education is destined to follow the same road as its manufacturing counterparts. I have never met a teacher, student, or parent who would favor an "education mill" type of education, yet many would argue that much of our public school system is stuck in this 20th century pattern of production. This begs the question "how do we move into the 21st century?"

We move ahead by expecting teachers to be more than assembly line workers. The ideology of a factory works this way-- divide the labor into smaller specialized pieces, take the skill out of the task, and add complexity to the system. It becomes easier to find labor to fill these roles because the system becomes more important than the worker. As long as the worker can "follow the plan”, everything runs smoothly. This has been done everywhere from McDonald's to GM. This is the way teachers are expected to act more and more, and we wonder why our schools look like factories.

We teach from common curriculum, give our students common assessments to measure benchmark performance and at the end the quality of our work (teaching) and the quality of our product (students) is judged by standardized testing. "Data" gathered from isolated educational specialists inform the "best practices" to which teachers are expected to conform. Increasingly, teachers are evaluated in five-minute bursts as administrators use a standardized checklist to measure performance.

Factories are run on a strict hierarchy—
Board-->Plant Manager-->Divison Managers-->Department Foremen-->Assembly Line Worker.

How does this compare to a school system structure?
School Board-->Superintendent-->Asst. Superintendents with specific duties-->Principals-->Assistant/Associate Principals-->Classroom teachers.

Factories are governed from the top down. Decisions are made at the top; workers at the bottom follow rules. When the workers start making decisions, the system fails. The further down the chain you go, the more employees are governed by policy, protocols, and manuals. In many cases, the workers are too busy to make decisions because the highest priority becomes producing more.

How do we kill the factory system of education? We stop treating teachers like assembly line employees. When they do a job well, we do not reward them by giving them more work. We protect their time to guarantee they have time to reflect and make wise decisions regarding individuals and instruction. Finally, we stop treating them as a monolithic labor force and value their individual contributions to a collaborative system of human development.

How do teachers ignite this process?  By remembering what we were taught in ed school, that students want to know that we care before they care what we know.  No matter how many students we're given or how many classes we teach, we must never lose sight of the fact that our relationship with an individual student is the most important factor in any system of education.  We need to engage the leaders of our building and systems in productive forward moving discussion.  We need to recognize the autonomy that we still possess and use it to the advantage of our students and communities. 

When teachers are given the opportunity, and take advantage of the opportunity to creatively and actively engage the learners of their community, the factory will become a relic.

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