Learning the Wrong Lesson about Education Reform

Does it make sense to think of teachers as factory workers and students as widgets on an assembly line? Why do we keep looking to the corporate model for education reform?

Kids on a conveyor belt
(Roberto Parada / SEP)

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Detroit, 1979. U.S. auto companies were being threatened by foreign competition, and the Motor City became a symbol of American industrial decline. Chrysler would be subjected to its first (but not last) government bailout; the Ford Motor Company was about to lose $1 billion for that fiscal year, and at least as much again in 1980; and GM’s profits were expected to plunge by a breathtaking $2.5 billion. Meanwhile, Japanese automakers were gaining market share; Toyota would soon surpass GM as the world’s largest car company. (A similar scenario played out in other industries too, especially consumer electronics and the copier industry.)

This article is an excerpt from After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform by Andrea Gabor, published by The New Press. Copyright © 2018 by Andrea Gabor.

Then, as now, the convenient scapegoat was the rank-and-file employees — in ­Detroit’s case, the unionized workers whose relatively high wages and ostensibly poor work ethic were initially blamed for the automakers’ problems. Only as Japanese wage rates reached parity with those in the United States and Japanese automakers began hiring American workers for their U.S. plants did some Detroit auto executives begin rethinking the narrative of blue-collar failure.

In 1980, an NBC documentary, If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?, served as a wake-up call for American industry. The documentary introduced the methods of a little-known American quality expert by the name of W. Edwards Deming to an American audience. Deming had helped Japanese companies rebuild following World War II, becoming a hero in Japan. Responding to an urgent appeal from the new president of Ford, Deming flew to Detroit and, during the next few years, proceeded to rip the lid off of the prevailing assumptions about the quality problems of U.S. companies. It is a testament to how desperate the auto executives were that they grudgingly embraced Deming’s message, despite the fact that he laid the lion’s share of the blame for quality problems on senior management instead of on labor.

Canned curricula have sucked the joy and creativity — and often the purpose — out of teaching and learning.

Deming was a quintessential outsider. Raised in Wyoming, Deming was trained as an engineer and physicist but became a pioneer in statistical sampling methods. At the peak of his popularity, he worked out of the basement of his modest home in Washington, D.C. At a time when American industry was becoming ever more siloed and finance focused, Deming advocated a collaborative, systems-focused, process-obsessed approach to management. While he was often derided as a mere statistician, Deming made a crucial breakthrough by linking the scientific (in particular, how to understand and manage the statistical variation that erodes the quality of all processes) and the humanistic (an intuitive feel for the organization as a social system and a collaborative, democratic vision of management).

Variation is as ubiquitous as air or water. But a ­cornerstone of Deming’s teachings was that only the employees closest to a given process can identify the variation that invariably diminishes quality and develop ideas for improving quality. Ordinary employees — not senior management or hired consultants — are in the best position to see the cause-and-effect relationships in each process, Deming argued. The challenge for management is to tap into that knowledge on a consistent basis and to make that knowledge actionable. To do so, management must train its employees to identify problems and develop solutions. Deming argued that management must also shake up the hierarchy (if not eliminate it entirely), drive fear out of the workplace, and foster intrinsic motivation if it is to make the most of employee potential.

What, readers may be wondering, does industrial improvement in the automotive industry have to do with the ongoing controversy and debates surrounding the quality of American education?

Since the beginning of the millennium, the story of education reform has been, in important respects, a business story. That’s how I, a longtime management writer, first got hooked on the subject. And I believe that the ­corporate-reform industry that is gaining ever-­increasing influence on how American schools educate children has largely ignored the successful examples and strategies for improving schools that are hiding in plain sight. These distinct examples together form something of a quiet revolution in education. Even as the generative, ­systems-oriented ideas were finding their way into companies, inspired by ­Deming and like-minded management thinkers, some schools and school districts around the country were following suit. They were resisting the mandates, the punitive teacher evaluations, and, in some cases, even the standardized tests and were searching for — and finding — an alternative path.

Student fulling in bubbles on a test
Exam slam: Round after round of testing is demoralizing for students and teachers alike. (Shutterstock)

But too many business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices — favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms. They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion — even their hatred — of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.

What has led the mainstream education establishment astray is that it has adopted the wrong lessons from American business. Instead of learning from systems thinkers like Deming about the importance of ordinary employees — not senior management or hired consultants — the education establishment has looked to the top-down, hierarchical world in which employees are directed from above and manipulated with carrot-and-stick incentives.

The man whose ideas have permeated the DNA of American industry and society was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was hailed by The New York Times as “the man who invented efficiency” — an early-20th-century mechanical engineer whose obsessive rationalism oversold the ability of science to improve productivity; undervalued the creative input of employees, especially hourly workers; and leveled its greatest ire against labor unions.

Taylorism even shaped public education. “[F]or better or for worse, Taylor’s influence ‘extended to all of American education from the elementary schools to the universities,’” writes Robert Kanigel, Taylor’s biographer.

Educational institutions have profoundly different goals and cultures and constituencies than businesses do, which makes them much less suited either to a free market model or to Taylorism. Educators are much more driven by social justice and job security than by money. Good teaching is as much art as science. Good education also is seen, increasingly, as collaborative and interdisciplinary. Last but not least, children are more vulnerable than adult employees or consumers to disruptions of the marketplace.

The Taylorite legacy is responsible for one of the most distorted and counterproductive received truths of the mainstream education-reform movement, one that blames teachers for the lion’s share of the problems that ail schools and has turned teacher bashing into a blood sport.

During the course of researching my book After the Education Wars, I asked dozens of sources — business leaders and education reformers of all stripes — what percentage of teachers they would consider to be “bad teachers.” When I asked Paul Vallas, a standard-bearer of the corporate-­reform movement and the former superintendent of both the now all-charter New Orleans schools and the Bridgeport, Connecticut, school system, his answer surprised me: “The vast majority are excellent when provided with the curriculum, instructional models, and supports” they need.

It’s noteworthy that much of education policy over the last 30 years has been directed at identifying, punishing, and expelling a relatively small percentage of poor performers. In the process, the educational establishment has produced a set of policy mandates — including a constantly shifting round of punitive and ill-­conceived performance appraisals that were linked to steadily shifting and often ill-conceived standardized tests — as well as canned curricula that have sucked the joy and creativity — and often the purpose — out of teaching and learning. They have not only subjected kids to round after round of testing and mind-numbing lessons; they have also proven deeply demoralizing for teachers — the vast majority of whom are capable educators who want nothing more than to improve their practice.

Instead of nurturing teachers to stay in the profession and improve their practice for the long term, the reform movement has focused on the effort to standardize teaching so that teachers can be easily substituted like widgets on an assembly line. In this context, it’s important to understand that behind the teacher-bashing is another Taylorite mantra that runs at cross-purposes with the aim of fostering an improved teaching corps: A unionized teaching force is a sure route to perdition. Better to maintain a revolving door than risk the possibility that teachers might join a union.

The result has been an unsustainable level of teacher turnover in both traditional public schools and charters — and in many districts, it is the best and most seasoned teachers who wind up throwing in the towel.

Even the conservative American Enterprise Institute recognizes that schools can’t fire (and hire) their way to better results. The total number of college graduates from Barron’s “highly competitive” or “most competitive” colleges is approximately 141,956 annually. If fully 10 percent entered into teaching for a two-year period before moving on to other careers, it would provide just 27,655 educators annually, 6 percent of the 438,914 teachers at work in the nation’s largest school districts (as of 2008). Simply put, schools have no choice but to work with the teachers they’ve got.

Part of the problem is that there has never been a consensus about the nature of the public school “problem.” One theory holds that American education has been “homogenized and diluted,” that it lacks rigor, and that the teaching force is wholly inadequate to the task — “too many” drawn from the bottom of their high school and college classes, too few experts in science and math, and not enough money to attract better candidates. Another theory argues that schools in middle-class and affluent areas are doing just fine, and it is the poor schools that are getting short-changed. Yet another theory argues that the standardized tests that were intended to inject more rigor into education are, instead, “driving instruction away from the development of … skills and thinking abilities increasingly needed” both in the workplace and in academia (emphasis added).

However you define “the problem,” there is little doubt that a global marketplace, one characterized by exponential technological change, and an increasingly diverse democratic society demand an education system that is capable of systematic adaptation and constant improvement. Schools must be able to prepare students both for the jobs of ­tomorrow and democratic citizenship. Yet, as of this writing, there is a growing realization that many of the remedies that have been touted for the past three decades have at the very least fallen short of these goals and have done little to improve American education overall, especially in the poorest neighborhoods.

For many of the schools that have defied the ­corporate-reform movement, choice — whether in public schools or charter schools — was focused on giving long-­disenfranchised communities a voice in the education of their children. Integration also has been a key objective, as has imparting the values of democracy. The schools and districts that embrace a collaborative approach to continuous improvement take to heart the dictum of John Adams, who declared education to be “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties,” declaring that democracy depends “on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.” Adams enshrined public education into the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the first colony to pass a law requiring that children be taught to read and write and to require every town to establish a public school.

By contrast, the corporate education-reform movement has deep anti-democratic roots. For over 30 years, education reformers have focused on the utilitarian concerns of American economic competitiveness and whether schools will produce young people who meet the demands of industry and a global economy. In the process, these reformers have created a boom in the educational testing and technology industry, narrowed curriculum, and eviscerated the teaching of non-tested subjects, especially history and civics.

One of the biggest challenges facing education innovators who try to resist the corporate “reformers” has been striking the right balance between local democratic control and oversight by city, state, or federal governments. This is an ongoing project, but one well worth pursuing. Both the country and one of its greatest companies, General Motors, once thrived under just such a federalist system. While many of our institutions suffer from gridlock and dysfunction today, it is time to renew the struggle to regain the proper balance between central and local control, both in our government and in our schools.

America has entered a dystopian dark age, one fueled by bigotry and a celebration of ignorance. Schools must promote the love of knowledge and intellectual exploration over hate and philistinism. And they must relight the flame of democracy via classroom curricula and their governance structures.

Hire Education?

When the first crop of graduates, diploma in pocket and Greek in head, started out to hunt a vulgar “job,” the businessmen of the community began to write sarcastic letters to the papers about the need for more R’s, little Latin, and less Greek. What boots it, they said, whether your graduate knows how to eliminate x and y if he is too dainty to paint a roof, or pound hot bolts, or stoke a stationary engine, or tie up a decent package?

In spite of the extraordinary rush into the secondary schools, beginning with 1890, there are hundreds of thousands of children of high-school age who have a right to be fitted somehow for efficient work.

—“Our Medieval High Schools” by William Hughes Mearns, March 2, 1912

Learning Vs. Earning

Vocational training is criticized as tending to classify society. Well-to-do pupils are given a “liberal” education; but those who must earn something as early as possible are shunted off into the manual and technical departments and educated to be carpenters, machinists, plumbers. There is some ground for this criticism now, but there will be none when public education is properly made over. The remedy will finally be found, not by stopping the so-called vocational education but by stopping the other sort. Public education ought to be founded squarely on modern industrial life. The schools should … deal with every pupil on the theory that he will be obliged to earn a living.

—“Studies That ‘Cash In,’” Editorial, August 2, 1913 one size must fit all

H.G. Wells

The world needs badly a new sort of school, a standardized school, a school richly equipped with modern apparatus, in which the same stereotyped lessons can be delivered [to all children]. I want to see the sort of thing happening to schools that has already happened to many sorts of retail shops. I want to see a great central organization, producing lesson notes, diagrams, films, phonograph records, cheaply, abundantly, on a big scale for a nation, just as America produces watches and alarm clocks and cheap automobiles for all the world.

—“The Salvaging of Civilization: The Schooling of the World” by H.G. Wells, May 7, 1921

Andrea Gabor has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Harvard Business Review, and Fortune, among other publications.

Copyright © 2018 by Andrea Gabor. This excerpt originally appeared in After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform, published by The New Press, reprinted here with permission.

This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Roberto Parada / SEP

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  1. The NEA has fostered the decline in individual education to devote group identity as the contributing factors in sharing knowledge. Read as indoctrination with the funding of lobbyists soliciting votes thru ‘bribery’. States take the money just like they do for medicade. States should stand back from big government. We see how parents look for ‘good schools’ and how the affluent flee public education. Not that the classroom teachers are inept or delinquent in their skills but first must hurdle the bureaucratic obstacles preventing teachers from teaching students…… do this, avoid this, patrol the hallways, the school bus circle,….. we pay home taxes, have lottery funding, federal funding….. yet the states want more and more money…. most affluent states and the feds spend like they have a perpetual source of taxpayer funding. Solution: moratorium on all spending…. hold increases in taxes and salaries until there is productive improvement across all govt funding….. includes the civil servants…. make America a production entity rivaling all others. Stop all social ‘chit chat’ apps…email okay….no facebook….etc.. You want to talk with knowledge and not feelings. FACTS…. Do not trust anything in newsprint…. note how you respond to lies. Accept it with no action knowing the integrity or lack of integrity and take action…. that means character comes out in how you express the truth… your integrity.

  2. Andrea Gabor, in this excerpt at least, ignores what has been obvious and proven for a long time; that poverty, racism, and inequality are the main obstacles to better education outcomes.

    “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

    Martin Luther King

  3. The corporate model for edu reform has been fleecing taxpayers for decades.

    There are two major, distinctive elements for education in a society modeled on capitalism. The business side and the teaching/learning side. They must work together but shouldn’t be managed by the same person. They MUST have different skill sets to succeed.

    If there was EVER an occupation/vocation that demanded dual executives, education is it.

    Funding for education comes from our political bureaucracy and as such is in constant flux. That’s a bad idea and has proven to fail time after time after time.


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