This was posted on Valerie Strauss's "The Answer Sheet" in The Washington Post on March 27, 2011. I repost it here.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the early decades of the twentieth century, public schools came under severe attack, with magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal leading the way. Schools were assailed as being antiquated and inefficient. “[T]he American public-school system…,” wrote one critic, “is an absolute and total failure.”
Modern business was in ascendance, and this was the era of scientific management and the efficiency expert. The nation was abuzz with talk of economizing and making more efficient everything from factory work to running a household to the practice of the ministry. So it was the notion of efficiency that shaped both the direction and language of the school reform of the time.
School administrators began to see themselves as “school executives.” There was a call for “‘educational engineers’ to study this huge business of preparing youth for life.” Precise standards and metrics were developed to help teachers determine their efficiency: “Having these definite tasks laid upon her, [the teacher] can know at all times whether she is accomplishing the things expected of her or not.” Anyone falling short would be “unmistakably shown to be a weak teacher.” There were further suggestions to cut costs by cutting salaries while increasing class size and teaching load. The principles of efficiency were brought to the curriculum itself. An influential superintendant devised a system to calculate the dollar value of different subjects: for example 5.9 pupil-recitations in Greek are of the same value as 23.8 recitations in French. Since Greek recitations are so much more costly than French, “the price must go down, or we shall invest in something else.”
I remember being flabbergasted when, as a graduate student, I read all this in historian Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency. Many of these reform recommendations got pretty absurd – and I only gave you a taste of the absurdity with that Greek recitation business – before they collapsed under their own weight. (Though, sadly, the ethos of administrative pseudo-science would stay with us for a long time.) But what was sobering was the fact that many of these efficiency advocates were leaders in education, high-profile smart people caught up in what seemed like the best new managerial science of the time. Counting, measuring, quantifying – no matter how intricate the phenomenon – would provide the answer to the previous era’s vexing problems.
Fast forward to our time.
Once again, there is a powerful and concerted attempt assisted by mass media to portray public education as a catastrophic failure. Once again the business framework and business people play a huge role in contemporary school reform – actually, more so today. Once again reformers are equipped with what seems like the best new science – the economist’s way of framing problems, cutting-edge statistical models – and a technocratic language that sounds precise, definitive, and action-oriented. We will “incentivize”, “scale up”, “move the needle.” Since teachers are – when it comes down to it – the problem, we are busy devising systems and techniques to direct them. And we believe we have objective statistical procedures to measure their effectiveness.
This managerial approach to education took another step forward last November when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The New Normal: Doing More with Less,” in which he encouraged educators to “improve the productivity of our education system.” What was remarkable about the speech was that the Secretary was not only talking about productivity in administration and maintenance – which makes sense – but productivity inside the classroom as well. In one of many moments of doublespeak, he decried the “century-old, industrial-age factory model of education” while calling for the application of a management science mindset to teaching and learning.
It would be a healthy thing for current reformers to look back at their early twentieth century predecessors. That is a history we don’t need to repeat. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of reform movements – especially with the kind of momentum this one has – for its participants to feel they are on the edge of history, solving with new ideas and new tools the problems that flummoxed everyone before. Rather than the philosopher Santayana, the reformers more likely align with industrialist Henry Ford: “History is…bunk…the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.” And someday another historian like the author of Education and the Cult of Efficiency will write that history.