The Industrialization of American Schools

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What happens when we apply concepts designed for industrial processes to children in schools? The kind of factory schooling created by legislation like the US No Child Left Behind Act fails to recognize fundamental principles of psychological development and undervalues diversity and uniqueness.

The Right Idea in the Wrong Place

Industrialization, for all its bad press, has created the world we live in today. Without it, no one in the first world could begin to enjoy the level of abundance we have today, and much of the material progress we now see in the developing world is also directly attributable to the industrial mindset.

In simplest terms, industrialization is turning a long, complicated process into a series of simple, repeatable, measurable and incrementally improvable steps. For industrialization to work, it needs uniformity. The raw materials either must be uniform, or be quickly made uniform by early steps in the process. This uniformity permits simplification and acceleration of tasks all along the production line, increasing productivity and slashing cost.

When an idea transforms our world for the better, it is tempting to apply it in as many places as possible. I will argue that without full knowledge or reflection, we have applied the industrial model to schooling — without recognizing that the success we enjoyed industrializing things will not reoccur when we try the same techniques on children. John Taylor Gatto is known for calling current educational approaches “factory schooling”. I want to outline the ways that Gatto’s label is far more than a rhetorical tool. It is a devastatingly accurate assessment of what is going on in American schools.

Whether you call it “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) or “Race to the Top”, Americans now view education as an industrial process. An industrial process must be monitored and measured so it can be improved. We measure the education process through high-stakes standardized testing.

The basis of quality in a factory is uniformity: “these bolts must be 35 millimeters long,” with only a tiny “tolerance” allowed one way or the other. This is essential in industrialization so the bolts fit in with the next stage in the process. Any bolt outside that range is a “defect” and must be discarded or reworked to make it fit. So too in education, when some minimum test score is set as an acceptable level of progress. Any student falling below that level is considered a defect and a failure of the industrial process.

If processes are measurable, and defects are bad, then measuring the defect rate becomes a logical next step. Industrial quality expert Philip Crosby coined the expression “zero defects” to describe ideal industrial production. The No Child Left Behind legislation translated that concept directly into its standard of “all children proficient on state tests by 2014.”

Industrial processes are improvable processes. They can be improved on a number of objective dimensions including accuracy (discussed above), speed, and cost. Moving towards “zero defects” requires change, and rates of change can also be measured. In NCLB-speak, that rate of change is called “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP. Because testing happens at specific ages in a student’s life, it becomes important to ready students for these quality checks in time, leading to pressure to begin the educational ‘tooling’ of a child’s mind long before Kindergarten begins, with Pre-K, preschool, and even a slew of educational videos targeted to pre-verbal children. Stated bluntly, we’re trying to manufacture skilled learners in less time than before.

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While it may be objectionable enough from an aesthetic sense to use industrial concepts on our youth, doing so also fails on purely logical grounds. There must be thousands of ways that schooling a child is not like building an automobile, but here are a few of the most important ones.

Children are not Uniform Raw Materials

Infants are born different and keep getting more diverse with every passing day. Any psychologist will tell you that human performance varies widely for just about any skill that can be measured. These variances result from any number of factors beyond the control of the school. This variance dooms to failure any plans to ensure 100% of students score above a certain arbitrary standard on any given test.

Learning is Developmentally Dependent

Legendary developmental Psychologist Jean Piaget is most revered for describing a series of psychological developmental milestones. Piaget established that different children reach the same level of mental sophistication at vastly different ages. For instance, he identifies the “concrete operational” phase of development as happening typically between seven and eleven years of age. Attainment of Piaget’s stages is crucial for academic performance. Lacking a necessary stage of cognitive development can make learning certain concepts not just slower or harder, but outright impossible. The people in charge of our educational policy seem to have forgotten what Piaget learned. Two children, one two years ‘ahead’ of grade level, the other two ‘behind’ grade level may both be developing normally according to their own timeline and may both reach equally high levels of academic performance as their brains approach neurological adulthood. It seems we’ve confused ‘sooner’ with ‘better.’ But rather than acknowledge the reality of developmental differences, we identify late bloomers as a problem and promote the early bloomers to the gifted program.

Culture Advances Through Diversity

Consider your own life and perhaps those of your closest friends. Did you choose your career path in part due to what you hated or failed at in school — e.g., “I’m an accountant because I couldn’t spell to save my life,” or “I’m a writer because Algebra was a lost cause to me”? Our modern economy grants the biggest rewards for specialization, excellence and uniqueness, not mere uniformity. Sometimes I wonder why people watch programs like American Idol or The X Factor with such rapt attention. I think it could be because we’re all hungry to see people distinguish themselves as special rather than as a standardized cog in a much larger machine. While there are basic competencies that every citizen needs in order to function, industrial schooling seems to be growing this generalist syllabus far beyond what any adult uses. (Hint: if you crammed for a test, then promptly forgot the material the next day, this is not the kind of general knowledge I’m talking about.) In the midst of this academic bulimia, industrial schooling has a blind spot for what’s unique and amazing about any given student, because variance is bad — and unique talents and abilities almost never show up on a standardized test.

Artisan Schooling

While industrialization gave us material abundance beyond the dreams of our great-grandparents, it took away variety, local flavor, and authenticity. A consumer backlash against industrialization’s gray uniformity led to the popularity of ‘artisan’ products. In concept, at least, an artisan product (whether it be a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread, or a cup of coffee) focuses less on efficiency, uniformity and bulk production and more on a respect for the raw materials used, a reverence for the craftsman including his or her unique style and contribution to the creative process, and the overall quality of what is created.

If we must treat education as a kind of production, I’d be much happier thinking of it using the artisan model, where we would understand that each student has a unique pattern of development. With an artisan mindset, we’d be free to look for the unique and exceptional qualities of each student and develop them to outstanding levels rather than engage in a continual rear-guard action to bring lagging measures up to an arbitrary standard. We would have reverence for the teaching profession and permit teachers more latitude in determining their students’ progress. The results will no doubt be harder for statisticians to measure, but I have little doubt we’d be richer for it 20, 30, or 60 years into the future.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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