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December 02, 2010

The Classroom is a Factory, But What's the Product?

This morning I read Bob Barsanti's powerful commentary "The Classroom Is Not a Factory" Education Week (12/1/10). 

"Everything I needed to know about modern teaching, I learned in a factory. In the summer of my 18th year, I made plastic drink stirrers on the night shift at Spir-It Inc.... Many of the current reforms in education aim to turn the schoolhouse into that plastic-products factory. .. The machinery heats and molds our children, then stamps, bags, and packages them to a professional uniformity."

Lewis Hine

 So What's the Real Product?

I agree with Barsanti that schools have been turned into factories. But they don't produce students, they just work there. The demands of testing have turned schools into factories that harness the labor of students to toil at a "bubble-test" assembly line producing "achievement" data. 

Schools mask the child labor with noble mission statements that claim they are producing "life-long learners." But that's just a cover. If it were true, you would expect to see schools where students explored their interests and reflected on their progress as learners. 

The actual product of schools is data, and its production is pursued with relentless focus. Distracting subjects that aren't tested,  are cut. No time is wasted on "creative" student projects - they don't produce data. And when there's no test to take, students can always get ready with more "test-prep."

Of course, a test data factory is a not pleasant place to work, absenteeism runs high and every year many students quit. But there's a steady supply of new students to take their place. It should be noted that teachers work at the same factories. Conditions are better for them. They have a union.

Photo Title: One of the small boys in J. S. Farrand Packing Co. 
by Lewis Hine, July 1909
Library of Congress

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Pretty bleak, Peter. If that's the case, then teachers need to be something more than floor managers speeding product development: They need to be advocates for the workers, fighting for bread and roses. Some teachers may be penalized for assuming that role - a role they may never have anticipated when signing up for the gig - but the consequences are even more dire if they maintain the status quo you've described.

Better for teachers? I'm not so sure.
See: Edweek http://tinyurl.com/24h3u6l and Washington Post http://tinyurl.com/28sj8ku

(Be sure to read original article first - where Bill Gates compares teaching to 'mowing lawn.')

Larger class sizes, narrowing of curriculum, pension cuts, proposals to reduce educator incentives to take additional professional development courses, and proposals to reduce/eliminate incremental pay increases based upon experience are making many educators feel like cogs in an assembly line rather than valued partners in helping students become healthy, productive members of society.

I don't know of many educators who choose the profession for the money. However, the latest round of attacks on educators are causing many to think twice about their future in education.

And some still wonder why we can't attract the 'best and brightest' to teach?

To add to Matt's post - I think that Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and 'experts' have a significant conflict of interest when they discuss education reform. I can't help but think that they want to sell devices and 'solutions' (Bill Gates) to schools, encourage students to access and think about information in specific ways (Rupert Murdoch), and influence the types of tests that will be used to measure student 'achievement'. This has everything to do with their business ambitions and little to do with true educational reform.

Diane Ravitch and others are presenting an alternate, hopeful, view of teaching and learning. Agree or disagree with Ravitch's position, I think that educators need to do a better job of contributing to the current educational conversation. Educators can't cede this conversation to those with money and commercial aspirations; we need to speak up and be passionate, public advocates for the students we teach every day.

Yes, I agree. I'm one of those teachers who struggles to help students "really learn" and encourages goal setting and reflection- all of which take an immense amount of time. My "scores" have been dropping consistently over the past few years because I'm taking too much time explaining a plethora of standards. Of course, a couple weeks before standardized testing I do have to revert to "throwing knowledge against the wall to see what can stick". I hope and pray (literally) that education sees the reforms it truly needs. Otherwise, I'll probably be out of a job in a few years due to valuing understanding over good test scores.

Lisa,

I have great sympathy for the situation you're in. (your comment echos a comment I just got from another teacher in response to my post "7 Lessons Students Learn in School" http://bit.ly/fwNE1p )

As educators we need to focus on student performance, but the standardized testing regime is not the way to measure it. The unintended (?) consequence of NCLB is that dedicated teachers who believe in preparing students to think will be marginalized (or elect to leave the profession).

As someone who taught for over 25 years in the high stakes testing environment of the NYS Regents exam, I learned to be quietly subversive. Getting good test results from my students, but finding ways to sneak in the constructivist approach. Of course the teacher supervision atmosphere was a bit more lax then. I never sent my kids to the principals office - and he left me alone.

Lisa and Matt - I agree with both of you that teachers will need to advocate for the kind of instruction our students will need to be productive members of society. I don't think there's much demand for workers that can fill in a bubble sheet.

John,

Thanks for your great links. Ravitch really takes on Gates in the Washington Post!

These are difficult times for educators - they've become the whipping post for decades of much larger societal problems. (Example - warehousing poverty in a neighborhood and then blaming its teachers for poor performance.) Corporate America (Gates, Murdoch, etc) is eagerly eyeing new market share in a more privatized K-12 school system. Now that unions and worker benefits have been destroyed in the private sector - teachers and other public employees are be the next target.

It's true that teachers unions needed to rethink their historic reluctance to support education innovations. But educational innovative won't likely happen now that war has been declared on teachers. Expect teachers to "Take it to the mattresses" Would you blame them?

Sadly through it all our kids will suffer most. They'll spend the bulk of their school days performing routine tasks in preparation for tests. The exams are designed to serve the political agenda rather than provide useful feedback to students on how they are progressing as learners.

Excellent analogy, and, sadly, truer every day. Found this post via the Education Buzz at Steve Spangler's Blog.

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