Book Excerpt: The Education Factory

This post is an excerpt from a first draft of my book manuscript. I am posting it in order to gather comment and test my writing on a larger public.

The working title of this book is:

No Children Left on Their Behinds:

How Creative Dance Can Save American Education

© 2010 Randy Barron. All rights reserved. Re-publication in any form whatsoever is not permitted without written permission. Please direct readers to this site rather than to copy and paste from it.

Chapter : The Education Factory

What does teaching and learning look like in a school in the USA, ten years into the new millennium? If you haven’t stepped into a school building in decades, you might be surprised by some of the changes you would see, but it would not seem all that different from schools you remember from your youth.

In fact, schools still operate in many of the same ways they did when public education got its start here. Students still often sit at individual desks arranged in rows. There are colorful bulletin boards and posters on the walls of the rooms, and there are usually shelves of textbooks in each room. Discipline policies and classroom management tools are prominently displayed. Student work is posted in the hallways, often with little explanation of its purpose or hints about assessment.

School buildings are variations on rectangular boxes, rooms are smaller boxes, and there is an office, a cafeteria / multipurpose room, a library (“media center,” now), and sometimes a gymnasium which might contain a stage. Typically, such stages are not used for performance or practice but for storage of things that won’t fit anywhere else in the building. The boxes-within-boxes theme is the standard for school design.

Announcements come over the school PA system first thing in the morning. (The higher-tech schools use video, sometimes with students doing the on-camera announcing.) They also regularly interrupt during the day, usually with the preface, “Please excuse the interruption…” There are various similarities to military, industrial, and even prison life in the daily routine. There is a lot of attention to security. The teaching and learning environment is segregated from the surrounding community and natural environment.

Some classrooms are organized around table groups: four to six students sit together around a common table, or push their individual desks into a rectangle. But all testing and much of the other work students do is solitary and silent — or as silent as today’s troubled and distracted children can manage.

With all the powerful research about how humans learn best, why do we still put our children and our money into structures and strategies that do not work? With literacy and “numeracy” rates dropping like stones, year after year, why have we not transformed schools the way that major corporations have re-designed themselves to meet 21st-century needs?

The answer lies partly in the ignorance and cowardice of legislators who cannot be bothered to learn how we learn. They serve the economic machinery that says testing and textbooks are big business and we can’t afford to monkey with the system. And the answer also lies in the continuing reverberations of the industrial age that spawned public education in the first place.

Until the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear in the 19th century, there was no such thing as public education. Schooling was for those who could afford it, not for the lower classes who were destined to serve out their lives as laborers and menials.

But the vast new factories required many thousands of new hands to work the machines and to assemble the products and to package them for shipment or sale. Workers needed to perform their mind-numbingly repetitive tasks for hours upon hours, mostly in isolation. Workers toiling side by side could barely hear one another over the roaring and clatter of gigantic machines, and collaboration and creativity were regarded as distractions rather than advantages.

Factory workers needed basic literacy and a few simple numeric skills. Also, many poor families were sending their underage children to work in factories, where they were often maimed, killed, or poisoned in the harsh environs. To make sure that children were not lost to the labor force at such a young age, and to train them in the skills they would need in the factories when they became old enough to work, the captains of industry agreed to allow the government to institute a system of free public education.

Much in the spirit of noblesse oblige, the investment in “bettering the great unwashed” was seen as what an enlightened society could do for its citizens — and as a source of labor for the ever-hungry factories that were multiplying at breakneck pace across the country and around the globe.

Schools were designed like factories, with orderly rows of desks for students to “produce” their work, and the students themselves seen as “products.” As a way to assess quality control, educators devised “tests” for the students to pass. The diploma at the end of high schooling was like the union sticker on a toaster: a certification of basic quality. Tested and ready for use.

Behavior management was simple. The pioneering behaviorist B. F. Skinner later explained and refined these techniques, but essentially educators used the “carrot and stick,” or reward-and-punishment method of keeping control of their young charges. It was Dickensian, it smacked of penal institutions the world around, and it led to horrific abuses of all sorts, but in general it worked fine, for the purposes of industry. If people wanted better education than that, let them earn the money to pay for it.

In the early 20th century, educational theory began to get some much-needed infusion of humanity and creative thinking. Leading theorists such as Jean Piaget and John Dewey began to question how humans learn and to challenge some of the basic tenets of the Factory Model of education. They postulated that we each construct or build our own understanding, based on experiences more than on information. But the industrial juggernaut was rolling on full speed ahead, thrown into a higher gear by the nation’s experience with the First World War and the intriguing idea of making weaponry for profit.

Then, in the 1930s, the Great Depression canceled any hope of reform or change in the educational system. School was a luxury once again, and many families put their children into menial jobs that paid a pittance but a pittance that might mean the difference between survival and abject poverty. Just as the nation was beginning to pull itself out of this downward spiral, the world was at war again, and war once more proved to be a way to enrich the factory owners while employing a new generation of consumers who would buy what the factories put out once the war was done.

Gradually, though, some of the fundamental inequities of American society also came floating to the top as a result of wartime realities. If women were no longer second-class citizens, by law, then why were there such large pockets of blatant discrimination against African Americans? Why were inner-city schools allowed to crumble into chaos while suburban schools became lily-white academic meccas?

Rather than looking at the fundamental strategies of teaching and learning in our schools, we as a nation became obsessed with the mechanics. How new and nice were the buildings? How many textbooks could we buy? What kind of furniture should we have in the classrooms? How far were we busing students to the “magnet school” of their choice, and what “magnet” themes would attract white-flight students back into minority-majority schools in the cities?

So the Factory Model of education went unquestioned, and was further aided and abetted by the Cognitive Approach. That approach, simply stated, was: bring the child into the classroom; “teach” the child correct information in an approved way; test the child; move the child on to the next grade.

This was similar to the factory approach, with some tweaks from the Computer Age: the brain was now not a reward-and-punishment machine, but a computing machine. Correct inputs would lead to correct output. Conversely, Garbage In, Garbage Out. The task was to figure out what was correct and what was garbage, and the student would magically absorb information if teaching was done correctly.

At this point the system started to experience what we could compare to the “caterpillar” phenomenon on the highway. That’s when the traffic slows down up ahead, and then speeds up again, but meanwhile the slowdown ripples backward along the path of travel, like a caterpillar bunching itself for the next extension.

Waves of “reform” passed through the system, sometimes going East to West, sometimes West to East, sometimes Central to Coast. The latest and greatest idea (New Math, Phonics, Whole Language, Reading First, yada yada yada) splashed down and the ripples gradually subsided after a brief notoriety in Reader’s Digest and Parade Magazine and Time or Newsweek.
Finally, the system was clearly bending under its own weight. Some might see that as an opportunity to transform education, rather than merely to “re-form” it, using the same old broken parts.

But, in the year 2000, a combination of ingredients conspired to bring us the most serious attempt ever to dismantle and bring down the public education system, while simultaneously rewarding test-makers and textbook publishers with a huge public trough of money for increasing “student achievement” as measured by standardized tests.
And it was based on one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated on the American public. It was titled “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind,” but Public Law 107-110 immediately became known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB (often pronounced, “Nicklebee”).

[I am making dissection of NCLB the subject of its own chapter.]



About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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6 Responses to Book Excerpt: The Education Factory

  1. Pingback: Environments Matter | Classroom Choreography

  2. Pingback: What Century Is This? « Classroom Choreography

  3. Evie says:

    Having a somewhat unusual schooling, my experiences have been a little different, but it scares me how much is familiar. Even though I went to a charter school, what was the main emphasis? English. We didn’t have an even barely adequate science or math program.
    Beside that, the concepts you outline here are truly terrifying. I didn’t make all the connections between school and corporate business; it’s vile. Corporations are like viruses running unchecked through weak immune systems.

  4. Amy D. says:

    This is very interesting! I’m looking forward to future posts.


  5. Melanie L. says:

    Your work is so very important–thank you for beginning to capture your expertise, experience, and excellence in the format of a book. I have no doubt it is going to impact many classrooms across the nation. I look forward to future posts.

  6. Maia Cortissoz says:

    This is great!

    While I’ve known for quite some time now that our education system is flawed, I’ve never before seen the correlation between big business/industry and how we are teaching our young people. Yet, it seems so obvious now. Entire school districts are failing – Kansas City, MO and Santa Fe, NM come readily to mind – almost shadowing the corporate American model they were set up to emulate.


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