Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Lingering Influence of Scientific Management

"The dominant metaphor for today's education is the Newtonian Machine: The school is a more or less well-oiled machine that processes (educates?) children. In this sense, the education system (school) comes complete with production goals (desired end states); objectives (precise intermediate end states); raw material (children); a physical plant (school building); a 13 stage assembly line (grades K-12); directives for each stage (curriculum guides); process for each stage (instruction); managers for each stage (teachers); plant supervisors (principals)…uniform criteria for all (standardized testing interpreted on the normal curve); and basic product available in several lines of trim (academic, vocational, business, general)."(1)

The Language of the Factory


oday, even though lip-service is given to "differentiating" instruction, the fundamental structure of public education is based on one-size-fits-all standards, the success of which is measured by standardized testing.

In 1995, the necessity of standards was defended as follows:

"Americans…expect strict standards to govern construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels; shoddy work would put lives at risk. They expect stringent standards to protect their drinking water, the food they eat, and the air they breathe…Standards are created because they improve the activity of life."

Powerful words! So powerful, in fact, that people failed to notice the inherent flaws in the logic! (See this article for an analysis of the fatal flaws of standards and standardized testing.)

There are proven ways in which to "standardize" the concrete and other materials that go into buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels. The materials that go into these structures are composed of inanimate materials. Those materials have no personal wants, needs, goals, or preferences. They are engineered to uniform consistency for a specific application. Similarly, the components of air, water, and food can be measured with considerable accuracy. Therefore, creating a standard that defines those components is relatively easy.

The same does not apply to human beings! Some will argue that we are more alike than different. That may be physically true. It may even be true in terms of the most basic cognitive processes. But beyond that, the billions of connections in the brain, which constantly change throughout our lives in response to experience, produce an almost infinite variety of combinations. What assembly line can work effectively when each bit of raw material is different, not to mention constantly changing? Further, inanimate raw materials can't choose whether or not to be "molded" into a predetermind form. Human beings can! It is not only illogical, but essentially impossible, to insist that human minds conform to such limited and limiting standards.

Faulty Materials?


n this assembly line organization of schools, what happens to students who can't keep up? Is it their fault? The teacher's fault? The school's fault? Or does the problem reside in the assembly line model itself?

Standardized Brain

Standards-based education is steeped in assembly line thinking—the idea that raw materials should move through the line at the same rate. If they don't, it's up to teachers to make sure they are "brought up to speed"—that they don't get "left behind" in the assembly process. Educators have lived for so long with this assembly line metaphor—are so comfortable with this way of thinking—that they no longer question the inherent logic of that premise.

Can all children (or adults for that matter) learn the same things at the same time and in the same way? Is that how natural learning takes place? Can anyone who is familiar with genetic, physiological, and psychological differences among humans, or the abundant research on how people learn say, "Yes"?

Even if all children could learn that way, does that mean that it is the most effective way to learn? Or, for that matter, that all students want to learn in that way? Of course, that question is quickly dismissed with the argument that only adults know what children need to learn. What is not so easily dismissed is that the "raw materials" reaching our schools today have already experienced multiple ways of learning far beyond anything available in Taylor's time. Personally, I see it as a hopeful sign that some learners willfully refuse to be shaped into the products defined by someone else's standards.

Has the quality of the raw material entering the school assembly line really declined so much in the past several decades? One would certainly think so when one considers the growing percentage of students labeled "remedial" or diagnosed with some "learning disability." We condemn the raw material as flawed because it can't or won't conform to the process! The mythical efficiency and productivity of the assembly line must be maintained at all costs—even if it means that more and more partially assembled parts fall off or are shunted to the reject pile!

As we saw in the standard medical assembly line story, the problems with applying factory mentality are blatantly obvious in other human contexts. Yet educational Taylorism retains its death grip on our public schools.

Holding the same expectations for all students—especially when those expectations ignore the effects of poverty as well as developmental differences, and locked to a specific age or a definition of success defined by the wealthy and powerful—is both discriminatory and contrary to both research and common sense. Yet this assembly line approach remains favored by a national policy that insists that schools use only "research-based" programs. Apparently, that requirement does not apply to the mandated policies themselves.

The Results of "Scientific School Management"


n The Myth of the Average Man, we examined the invalid concept of the "Average Man." There is no average person, yet that is the concept on which the curriculum, the tests, and much of the structure of public education are based. The question remains whether these methods have achieved their purpose of creating standardized (average) men to fill standardized jobs. Let's start with a simple test. Clearly, even the lowliest of workers need to be able to not only read, but understand what they have read sufficiently to function in the world and in their work. What has happened to literacy in the United States since 1900?

Why, when billions of dollars continue to be pumped into education, is the literacy rate declining? The answer, of course, is not simple cause and effect. But it must be blatantly clear that an increased emphasis on standardization has not only not improved the literacy of the country as a whole, but may be instrumental in substantially worsening it.

Nor have standards raised expectations, which was a major talking point in the whole standards movement. Perhaps that issue is best summed up in a 1995 letter to the editor written by a student-teacher of fifth graders.

"113 years earlier, fifth graders in Minneapolis were reading William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, and others like them in the Appleton School Reader, but today, I was told children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, have, he, home, if, in, is, it, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?"

The Official Purpose of U.S. Public Education in 2016


n 1957, The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development stated that "The main purpose of the American school is to provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society."(4) We often hear people say something like "The purpose of education is to prepare children to live responsibly in a complex world." While I may agree with these statements, and many others along similar lines, it turns out that these are not factual statements. They are beliefs. And unfortunately, they bear little resemblance to what is happening in public education. Please see this article for a more complete discussion of the purpose of education. Or simply type "The purpose of education is" into a search engine to understand that there is no consensus agreement about the purpose of education!

Because federal government policy mandates much of what goes on in public schools, perhaps the best way to determine the true purpose of American public education today is found in the U.S. Department of Education mission statement.

"ED's mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."(5)

Well, that wasn't much help. As usual, the Fed couches large goals in undefined, feel-good terms—AKA "glittering generalities." What do they mean by student achievement? What is the measure of educational excellence? The only fairly obvious term is preparing for global competitiveness, which I'm pretty sure doesn't refer to the Olympics.

Perhaps this purpose is more easily identified in the 2016 State of the Union address.

"We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job."
"In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and—(applause)—offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one."

The only goal included in both the mission statement and the State of the Union message is jobs and the economy. Obviously, jobs are important —and it's reasonable to assume that an educated populace would contribute to the economy of the country. But is a job a person's only goal in life?

And doesn't "landing a good-paying job" and being "job ready" imply that the goal is to work for someone else? If that is the case, where will our entrepreneurs come from? Where will our artists, musicians, and writers come from? In the words of Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal in the Bronx, "I don't want my kids to work for Apple—I want them to create the next Apple!"

The stated purpose of public education in the U.S. has changed little since schools were "standardized" during the Industrial Age. It's still focused on creating standardized humans to fill the jobs of the economy! The idea that education is about helping each child become his or her personal best has never been a significant goal of public education in the United States.

But wait a minute! If all children develop their unique potential along with the awareness that they can use that potential to solve societal problems, in addition to the "content" that is now the sole focus of education, would that be bad for the economy? It isn't either/or! It's both/and!

Well, O.K., but you may be thinking that people don't "really" think of schools as factories, right? In case you feel that this is all an exaggeration, here is a quote from Rex Tillerson, who was then CEO of Exxon-Mobil, from a Fortune Magazine Special Report on Common Core Standards.

"I'm not sure public schools understand that we're their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer… What they don't understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we're not interested?… [American schools] have got to step up the performance level—or they're basically turning out defective products that have no future."(6))

If the only purpose of public education is to "produce" worker bees for business and industry, then why aren't business and industry paying for public education?

Recall that Frederick Taylor's "Scientific Management" was based on the concept of the Average Man. The word "scientific" tends to blind people to the fact that science changes as new research broadens our understanding. More recent "science" has shown that there is no such thing as the "average" person, and that any system designed around the "average" fits no one! If you haven't yet read The Myth of the Average Man, it is highly recommended for insight into the flawed premise of public education, which is based on a "standard" or "average" student. The concept of average humans is scientifically obsolete, as well as extremely damaging to human beings.

  1. Sawada, D. & Caley, M.T. (1985). Dissipative Structures: New Metaphors for Becoming in Education. Educational Researcher, Vol 14, No. 3, 15.
  2. https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp
  3. http://www.statisticbrain.com/number-of-american-adults-who-cant-read/ (Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy)
  4. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_update/eu201207_infographic.pdf
  5. http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/mission/mission.html
  6. http://fortune.com/common-core-standards/

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