December 11, 2007

Er, I think you're forgetting something

In this Providence Journal article, Julia Steiny goes to great pains to describe the historic flaws in our secondary schools. The problem is that she leaves out the most important part. See if you can spot it.


At the dawn of the 20th century, educators were faced with a huge influx of children from foreign-immigrant families and families coming to the cities from farmlands. Educators turned to America’s signature dynamo at the time, the factory, after which they modeled America’s comprehensive secondary schools.

Got it? I'll give you a hint. Educators didn't model schools after the factory, at least not directly.

Educators turned to the government to run the schools and then these government-run schools turned to the factory model. And, therein lies the rub.

Steiny goes on to set-up an extended metaphor that completely misses the mark due to this omission.

As it turned out, the problem wasn't with the new immigrants--they eventually performed as well as other Americans who came from Europe. The problem was that no one had ever figured out how to educate the unwashed masses-- the lower 75% of society. So when we turned the enterprise over to the government, the government had no successful model to emulate, so the "factories" they set-up were all defective. In a properly-operating free-market, the market would work behind the scenes to divert resources from the failed models to the more successful models. Deprived of resources, the underperforming schools would close down and the successful schools would be emulated. But with government in the act, the free market is pushed to the side. Resources are determined by politics. With no incentive to improve, schools don't try. No failing school gets closed. The result is, well, the system we have today. Today, schools are only capable of educating the same kinds of kids the were capable of educating back in the early 20th century. The unwashed masses don't get educated.

You can always spot an unreformed lefty by this large intellectual blindspot. This blindspot marred the otherwise well-written book by Sherman Dorn, Accountability Frankenstein. Dorn takes pains to describe the forces that affected and shaped the American education system but inexplicably fails to mention the one, most likely the largest and most influential factor. That's too bad, especially since Dorn tries so hard to be evenhanded.

10 comments:

allen said...

So where do school districts fit into the "factory model" explanation for the source and state of the public education system?

Downes said...

"Educators turned to the government to run the schools and then these government-run schools turned to the factory model."

This alternative history is totally false, ignoring completely as it does the phenomenon of religious schools, which basically invented the discipline-based and rule-based system of learning we see used to train factory workers today.

To foist such fiction as fact is irresponsible.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, I think your point is somewhat besides the point. The point I was trying to make does not rely on who started the factory school movement. I have no reason to believe that it wasn't the religious schools that were responsible as you assert even though it appears that by at least as far back as the 19th century this manner of instruction seemed to be the dominant role already. My point is that regardless of the origin, the government's adoption of the system is an intervening factor, a confounder if you will, that prevents one from ascribing causation of school failure to the factory model. And, as far as government taking over education as being an alternative history, I'm not entirely certain of your point since that appears to be the actual history at least in the US.

Allen, the problem is the assigning of a quality judgment to the term "factory model". Steiny thinks the term is entirely perjorative. I think the term is neutral. There are well run and efficient factories and poorly run ones. Steiny seemd to think that colleges aren't factories because they are grassy and serene, but in the sense that they are moving students through a process (education) in a somehat standardized manner seems to belie her point.

Downes said...

My point is not beside the point. Because of the existing models, no matter who set up the schools, the same model would have been followed. Therefore the attribution of the error to the government intervention is a needless - and misleading - distraction. It creates a falsified version of the history that incorrectly attributes cause.

KDeRosa said...

Therefore the attribution of the error to the government intervention is a needless - and misleading - distraction.

This is not a fair reading of what I wrote and cetainly is not a point I intended to make.

I didn't attribute error to the government, I attribured error to the fact that up to that point "no one had ever figured out how to educate the unwashed masses-- the lower 75% of society" and specfically conceeded that the government "had no successful model to emulate, so the 'factories' they set-up were all defective" So, government wasn't necessarily the problem, it was the lack of a successful model to emulate at least with respect to the lowr part of the curve. The factory model continues to work just fine for the upper part of the curve. In fact, I think its safe to say that almost nothing anyone has ever tried has successfully worked with the lowr part, so the fault does not necessarily lie with the "factory schools." Causation could be the result of some third factor that hasn't been identified. I attribute th failure to improve from this condition to government intervention, which is shorthand for the problems caused by the combination of monopoly and politcs.

Your point, assuming I'm unerstanding it correctly*, remains irrelevant to the analysis.

*admittedly I don't know what you mean by "falsified version of history."

Downes said...

You're trying to have it both ways. You're trying to say you're not blaming government while you're blaming government.

This is silly and a waste of time.

KDeRosa said...

No, Stephen, there is a distinction and you appear to be failing to appreciate it.

Thanks for stopping by though, it led me to watch your talk on Kirshner. I needed a fresh topic to blog.

CrypticLife said...

Hi,

"Because of the existing models, no matter who set up the schools, the same model would have been followed."

I don't know that this assertion is true. It sort of assumes that the model would not only have been the initial one, but that no matter who set up the schools, the same innovations would be made. One could claim the government stifled innovation through a virtual monopoly on education.

If the government had a successful model at the beginning, it may not have been much of a problem that they are slow innovators.

That seems to be the point of Ken's post, which is why I think he terms it irrelevant whether religious schools came up with the factory model first.

I also watched your talk on Kirshner. Despite the basic slides, you're a fairly competent speaker, despite my doubts about your arguments and conclusions. I have many comments I'd make on your talk as well.

Downes said...

> Thanks for stopping by though, it led me to watch your talk on Kirshner. I needed a fresh topic to blog.

If you give me a few days, I am preparing a text transcript of the talk, which I'll be posting on my 'Half an Hour' site. http://halfanhour.blogspot.com

Your choice of course.

Anonymous said...

Kliebard, K.M. (1999) “Constructing the concept of curriculum on the Wisconsin frontier: how school restructuring sustained a pedagogical revolution” in Moon, B. and Murphy, P.(eds) Curriculum in Context London, Sage.