The Cult of Efficiency Part 2


Should our schools be understood as factories or gardens?

“The school is a factory. The child is the raw material. The finished product is the child who graduates” (p. 176).

Conceptualizing schools as factories would fit well with the business thinking that seems to prevail in education today. As many people may not know, though, the popularization of this approach can be traced back to the early 20th century. According to Callahan, by the end of WWI, “the transition of the Superintendent of schools from educator to business manager was extensive.” Furthermore, school boards began to be dominated by business folk and educators started having to “demonstrate” their efficiency through records. The most important thing for administrators to do was to “cut waste.” They also produced annual reports to “justify expenditures and to educate the public in case additional funds were needed.” Their duty was to “give the city returns for [its] investment.” The increasing amount of records and book-keeping activities indicates the extent of the distrust of teachers and principals.

Callahan argues that there is no question that by 1918 administrators had followed the authoritarian role of the manager in industry and had applied it in their school systems. In essence, they were following a factory plan with school personnel executing similar functions to factory workers and managers.

“The 1920s,” wrote eminent sociologist Robert Lynd, “were years of educational ‘efficiency’ in American public education and of yardstick making by which to measure this efficiency.” However, despite the fact that school administrators had adopted many business and industrial values and practices and had assumed the posture of a general manager and executive, their basic problems remained—they continued to be insecure in their jobs and they continued to be plagued with financial problems. Now they were left with a platform of economy and were forced to be preoccupied with per-pupil costs, which they did, in part, by lowering or freezing pay scales, or by increasing teacher loads and class sizes. The identification of the total community with the business community was so common among administrators that one gets the impression that they thought the two communities were synonymous. The exaggerated idea of schools as service stations has been responsible for educators relinquishing responsibility for providing educational leadership and became mere technicians who produced the product according to specifications.

“You educators must understand that teaching is a business. You are salesmen. Your commodity is education. You must satisfy your customers, the taxpayers” (p. 231).

So, again, are schools factories? Are administrators managers? Are teachers sales(wo)men?

What are the implications for education if the answers to these questions are yes?

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