Factory schools

In my last column, I argued that America will never have the quality of public education the 21st century demands until Americans are willing to pay top-notch teachers as well as we pay other white-collar professionals.

For decades, we have raised our children to equate success with certain levels of income and lifestyle, with service to others, and to society, as a minor part of a good life. It’s unrealistic to expect young people to ignore these ingrained “values” in sufficient numbers to staff our schools with outstanding teachers, unless we are willing to pay them well.

Materialism has a price, including higher costs to hire outstanding people to do noble work.

But if we should be paying our teachers more, we should also be looking at ways to cut waste in our public schools. An enormous amount of waste results from continuing to run our schools on an industrial model – essentially, like factories – in a post-industrial age.

Most Americans are unaware that our model for secondary education was borrowed, almost intact, from Germany – to be specific, from the Prussia of Otto von Bismarck. The “Iron Chancellor”, determined to make Germany the equal of imperial Britain, wanted schools to turn easy-going rural and small-town Germans into compliant, efficient factory workers and soldiers.

Thus, the industrial high school, which treats each student as an essentially fungible commodity, an interchangeable raw material to be processed like every other component of input. If it takes Student A one school year to learn Algebra I, it will take Student B the same amount of time, regardless of math aptitude. If it takes both a year to learn Algebra I, it will take them exactly the same amount of time to learn World History I, or the first year of a foreign language, etc.

Of course, this model is absurd – unless you set your standards absurdly low, as Virginia does with its SOLs. If you’re willing to accept “minimum competence” as your standard, you can probably get most students through most courses, with a minimal number of factory rejects who must be reprocessed.

This is the sort of thinking that would justify a policy insisting that all eighth-graders take Algebra I, regardless of an individual student’s level of math readiness. Set the bar low enough, and most students will find a way to demonstrate “minimum competence,” even if they learn very little.

Such an industrial approach to education builds in enormous waste.

For kids of high ability, taking a full school year to study a subject they could master in half the time is a waste of time and the resources needed to keep bright students from being bored. This is one of the fundamental problems with America’s prevailing model of gifted education – the “enrichment model.”

For students who need longer than a year to learn a particular subject, it’s also a waste. Instead of taking the time they need to master a challenging subject, these students will, at some point, begin falling behind. Eventually, many will fail – even by the generous standards of the SOLs – which can only lead to frustration. Many students will bear this in silence, but some will engage in the sort of disruptive behavior that wastes the time of teachers, other students and administrators.

The content of the average secondary school course is tailored to the learning ability of the average student on the industrial age assumption that the average student stands for all. And such an approach leads to an incredible waste of time, to student boredom and frustration, to teacher burn-out and to an excessive amount of administrative time spent on discipline.

These are but the most obvious examples of how the industrial model of education results in wasted resources – in this case, the human resources of student, teacher and administrator time.

Our 180-day school year, predicated upon a factory model and an even more outdated agricultural calendar, leaves school buildings empty for half the days in the year.

Meanwhile, students, especially younger adolescents of middle-school age, are often at loose ends, spending 10 or 11 weeks of summer unlearning what they have just spent nine-and-a-half months acquiring.

And our teachers, underpaid as they are, are compelled to find short-term work or take a mandatory, unpaid “vacation,” instead of being paid to pursue their chosen careers.

Breaking out of the industrial model of education, with its absurd insistence on standard units of 135 to 150 classroom hours per “academic credit” and mandatory summertime hiatus, could result in great savings in both money and human effort.

But to do so would require us to begin thinking of education in terms of what we want our young people to learn, not how long we want them to sit in a given classroom, nominally learning a given subject.

More of ‘Rick’s writings may be found at http://www.helium.com/users/590059.

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