The Cult of Efficiency in Education


This post and the next one will explore Raymond Callahan’s 1962 work, “Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public school” and attempt to make connections to contemporary events and add to current educational discourse.

In his book, Callahan outlines how widespread public schools emerged in the 20th century as a product of the industrial age. The dominant values of the era were “modern business methods” and “efficiency,” both of which were informed by maximizing production while minimizing costs.

He identifies the high priest of this movement as Frederick Winslow Taylor, a man who popularized the notion that there was always one best method for doing a particular job and that this method could be found through scientific study. Thus, the judgment of the workman was to be replaced by the laws, rules, principles, etc., of the science of the job which was developed by management. Despite Taylor warning against the tendency to accept his system as panacea for all problems everywhere, he could not stem the enthusiasm with which people from all walks of life took up his ideas.

Because Taylor’s ideas could be applied by anyone with common sense, these ideas were introduced into a variety of different endeavors, public and private. It wasn’t long before they were introduced into education. At the beginning of the 20th century public schools increasingly came under the eyeglass. Immigration-boosted-population increases necessitated more classrooms and teachers, but with the cost of living having already increased by 30%, people were suspicious of increasing school budgets. Efficiencies were called for in the areas of teacher rating and for administrators at first, but soon spread to many other areas of school life.

Increasingly, the public was calling for a more “factual basis” for education, which manifested itself in the use of standardized tests, school surveys, and other procedures, such as efficiency ratings, score cards for buildings, and elaborate systems of records and reports. Of course, the question of which studies were of greatest value socially and individually arose e.g. Latin vs. machine shop. Thus, scientific determinations of educational value actually turned out to be determinations of dollar value.

Standards were being called for as far back as the early 1900s to demonstrate “value for money.” Early administrators’ work had to take on the appearance of scientific respectability, but it also leant itself to an overemphasis upon the financial aspects of education. The tragedy was that educators were forced to assume too soon the role of experts, which turned their attention either to cost accounting or to the simple mechanical problems. Administrators, therefore, either studied the advice of the “experts” and applied the efficiency procedures themselves or if the situation was critical they called in the efficiency expert to them save their jobs.

The notion that schools were, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life was predominant and was expounded and reinforced by educational administration leaders. The purpose of the new scientific movement was, as the Dean of Stanford’s School of Education stated, to create standards, so that the efficiency of the work of the schools could be determined, demonstrated, and communicated to the public in a language that the community could understand. Two central questions emerged from this environment: What return is the community getting from its investment in the schools; and how can the investment be made to yield greater returns?

Too few people spoke out against the dominant force of society and fewer still could do anything to prevent it from taking over the schools.

Voices such as the the American Teacher (a mouthpiece for the American Federation of Teachers) were few and far between: “education must measure its efficiency not in terms of so many promotions per dollars of expenditure, nor even in terms of so many student-hours per dollar of salary; it must measure its efficiency in terms of increased humanism, increased power to do, increased capacity to appreciate.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s