No, public schools are not modeled after factories. Here’s why Betsy DeVos keeps saying they are.

The Factory Model

Pulling apart a public institution long central to American communities can be a hard sell, especially when accompanied by talk of budget cuts, school closures, and teacher layoffs. In response to public opposition, free-market advocates have made a strategic shift. They have presented their work as a quest not to unmake public schools, but to “personalize” them.

A vaguely defined term applied to everything from project-based schooling to computer-based instruction, “personalized learning” has attracted broad support. Who, after all, would be against either component of that two-word phrase? For proponents of dismantling public education, though, “personalized learning” means something very particular — a vehicle for unbundling education.

The problem, they argue, is that public schools are designed to strip young people of their individuality. Just as factories once stamped out widgets, these critics insist, so our public schools function today — a one-size-fits-all production process. Their preferred solution is a radical reimagining of education. Specifically, they favor breaking “school” into its component parts and putting each up for sale in an education marketplace. But they propose to do so in the name of personalization — in other words, for the good of young people. As New Hampshire’s top education official put it, the aim is to “break down the system so each kid is treated as a unique entity.” They’re ready to junk both the practices and the principles of public schooling.

To make their case, hard-line conservatives have worked to convince the public that its schools are organized in a hopelessly outdated manner. As Betsy DeVos and others have argued, America’s public schools are the public-sector equivalent of bloated, industrial-era private companies. In fact, they have even gone so far as to claim that schools were originally modeled after factories — designed specifically to produce industrial labor.

This is a fabricated history. But it is also more than that. In holding up factories as models of inefficiency, DeVos is reading from a well-worn script with origins in mid-twentieth-century political theory. In articulating a critique of large firms, influential theorists argued that such companies were often irrational and almost always inefficient. The worst offenders of all were the biggest — vertically integrated organizations that controlled every stage of a production process. These massive corporations inevitably became bureaucracies and, as such, were managed through internal politics. Rather than being governed by information and market signals, they were led astray by personal interests that were divorced from the profit motive.

Even if these companies weren’t plagued by internal politics, these political theorists surmised, they were hopelessly inefficient because they failed to specialize. Worse, such companies didn’t even recognize their failures. Because all aspects of the business were mixed together above a single bottom line, very large corporations, particularly those that were vertically integrated, were unable to differentiate the profitable components of their businesses from the money losers. In such cases, the money-making segments ended up subsidizing the less profitable ones — a form of intra- organizational corporate welfare. These companies would be far better off, theorists conjectured, if they focused on their “core” business and contracted out any other services.

In the 1980s, management consultants like Peter Drucker began to make the case for what he called “decentralization into autonomous units.” And by 1990, the practice of splitting a company into two or more separate businesses had become a relatively common occurrence, with firms spinning off their divisions at a rate of about fifty a year. As such practices became standard in the business world, calls for decentralization in the public sector grew louder as well. “Management lessons have been proven again and again in the last several decades,” wrote IBM chairman Louis Gerstner in his 1995 book Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America’s Schools. “The issue is not just making schools more businesslike; rather, it is to run schools like other successful organizations.”

But what is the core business of schools? Classroom instruction is one core component, obviously. But beyond administering all aspects of the curriculum, schools also commonly run operations in the areas of transportation, catering, security, youth athletics, childcare, maintenance, bookkeeping, and more. In other words, as vertically integrated operations, schools violate all the core tenets of modern management consulting. Sheltered from market forces and protected by political arrangements, they could be ineffective and inefficient and still survive.

As privatization advocates like the Hoover Institution’s Terry Moe argued, the solution to this problem was to be found in what he called “the contractual paradigm.” If schools could be broken into their component parts, they would have to be governed through some mechanism other than democratic politics and bureaucratic structures. Instead, they would function as contractors for an array of services that would be provided by specialists. Virtually every aspect of the work of schools, even curricular instruction, could be farmed out to private companies via performance contracting.

These 1990s-era critics didn’t simply invoke the factory comparison because they believed that the designed function of classrooms was to churn out students as though they were widgets. Equally offensive to them was the endurance of bureaucratic governance structures in public education. Andrew Carnegie cornered the steel market in the late nineteenth century by building a vertically integrated monopoly. He owned the mines from which iron ore and coal were extracted, the railroads that transported them, the blast furnaces that produced coke, and the natural gas that powered those furnaces. But Carnegie Steel had long since fallen out of fashion as a corporate model. According to modern management theory, outsourcing was the key to success. By this same logic, the process of schooling should have been broken into its component parts. Instead of being centrally administered, it should have been outsourced to specialty companies.

The “factory model” metaphor was trotted out so often that it became casually accepted as historical fact. “Our K-12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education,” the then secretary of education Arne Duncan claimed in a 2010 speech. Similarly, the XQ Super School Project, underwritten by the extensive fortune of Laurene Powell Jobs, repeated the claim that public schools were relics of the past. “The world has gone from the Model T to the Tesla, from the typewriter to the touchscreen, from the switchboard to the smartphone,” proclaimed one XQ talking point. “But in [high school] hallways and classrooms, very little has changed.”

This invented past, in which public schools were modeled on industrial-era factories, has been repeatedly debunked. It is well documented that the first high schools were created for young people whose families hadn’t already sent them off to work, and that those schools often rivaled colleges and universities in prestige. Eventually, public demand for greater access led to the creation of more high schools, many of which grew quite large in size — perhaps even as large as factories. But at no point did policy makers collectively determine a model of any sort, much less one based on American industry.

It’s understandable why the public has been willing to accept this bogus history. Nested inside state and municipal bureaucracies, public schools can often seem like the polar opposite of “personalized.” And students are compelled to spend twelve years moving through required subjects — math, English, history, science — more or less at the same pace, and without particular regard for their talents and interests. School can be a drag.

But these are not problems resulting from a “factory model.” Instead, the factory-like aspects of schooling are chiefly a product of the enormous scale of public education. Schools are already charged with doing the impossible — carrying out the work of human improvement in a country riven by racial, economic, and geographic inequity. The scope of such work further magnifies the challenge, particularly when the equal treatment of students is prized. After all, the “sameness” that libertarian-oriented conservatives disdain also reflects an egalitarian commitment, however imperfectly realized, to the ideal of education for all.

Ultimately, the simplistic analogy to factories isn’t just historically inaccurate. It also allows its deployers to skip over the real problems of poverty and segregation by offering a seemingly commonsense solution. Address surface-level similarities between schools and industrial-era workplaces, they suggest, and public education will be fixed.

But if that diagnosis is wrong? In such a case, the prescription — breaking schools into their component parts and outsourcing as much as possible — might be a fatal one.


When Betsy DeVos and her allies talk about the future of education in the United States, they often refer to “unbundling.” In this vision, schooling is akin to a cable company that has packaged together hundreds of channels. But in an unbundled world, each channel is a stand-alone commodity, allowing consumers to select what they want to watch, according to their specific interests. Just as TV viewers can pay for Netflix and opt out of, say, MSNBC, education “consumers” should be able to pick and choose from an assortment of learning-related products and services.

The current one-size-fits-all system is incapable of providing every student with a high-quality education because children aren’t standardized, argues Doug Tuthill, head of the Florida school choice advocacy group Step Up For Students and a proponent of unbundling. Instead, families should be empowered to purchase from a selection of products and services, using the education equivalent of a health savings account. Writes Tuthill: “ESAs are how parents will pay the various education providers who collectively are providing their child a customized education.”

Unbundling is the logical extreme of what management consultants pushed for in the 1980s and 1990s. Its advocates make the case that by increasing marketplace competition, the weaker aspects of businesses are weeded out, enhancing the potential for profit among those remaining and better meeting consumer demand. Such an approach would represent a radical departure from the traditional organization of public education, which, as advocates of unbundling are quick to point out, allows for little customization. Instead of being able to pick and choose the pieces they want, families generally need to adopt the entire package.

In an unbundled world, the single process of education would no longer be controlled and run by a single provider. Instead, it could be split into its many component parts. As in the modern private sector, each of those aspects would be managed by specialist organizations, competing with each other in the free market — theoretically driving down price and increasing the number of consumer choices. Families would be able to select from an à la carte menu of courses, curricular units, and activities. The most wasteful parts of school would be eliminated, yielding significant savings. Students would ostensibly be more satisfied. Markets would irreversibly replace bureaucracies. And perhaps best of all, once it was broken into a million different pieces, the public education system could never be reassembled.

At the state level, conservative lawmakers have eagerly embraced unbundling policies. Fifteen states presently allow for some version of what is known as “course choice,” in which parents and students can choose courses outside of what their schools and districts offer, with funding flowing to the respective provider. In Wisconsin, school choice advocates want to allow students to take courses at any institution they choose, public or private, at a cost to their home school district. Other proposals go further. The controversial Learn Everywhere program in New Hampshire, for example, would require all schools to allow students to earn up to one-third of their credits toward graduation from a list of state-approved nonprofit and for-profit providers. But why limit students to selecting in- state options? Among the provisions of ALEC’s 2014 Course Choice Program Act: letting students take courses from providers in other states.

The most ambitious attempt to codify unbundling into state policy occurred in Michigan in 2012, when Republicans sought to erase school district boundaries and allow students to spend their allotted school funding dollars however and wherever they liked. Proponents painted a bright picture of dynamic school choice in action — students no longer held hostage by buildings or school districts. “Any time, any place, any way, any pace,” was the measure’s official motto. But critics, including district leaders like Rob Glass, superintendent of schools in Bloomfield Hills, an upscale suburb of Detroit, warned that the aim of the legislation was to break Michigan’s schools up into pieces, dilute public oversight, and sell off public property to private for-profit operators. “I’ve never considered myself a conspiracy theorist — until now,” wrote Glass in a widely circulated letter to parents and local residents.

Michiganders were unwilling to see their public education system “exploded and then re-marketed, in pieces,” as teacher and writer Nancy Flanagan described the plan. But the questions and concerns that dogged Michigan’s version of school unbundling remain just as relevant, and unanswered, today. What are the implications of divorcing education from geographic place? How will students get anything like a coherent education in an on-demand, à la carte system?

Perhaps the most serious problem of all is the fact that when schooling is unbundled, the broader democratic community no longer has a say in how, and for what purpose, young people are educated. Proponents of unbundling make the case that young people and their parents know best. Education is a private matter, they argue — no more of concern to the broader community than what kind of car a family chooses to drive or what brand of sneakers they buy. Families are customers, and education is the product.

But this view represents a radical departure from the complex, often contradictory roles that Americans have historically expected schools to play — helping young people develop knowledge and skills, prepare for citizenship, fulfill their human potential, and discover their place in society and the world. As far back as the earliest days of public education in the United States, the role of schools in producing an educated citizenry was perceived as foundational to the survival of a democratic system. In the words of legal scholar Derek Black, “Public education was to be the fuel that makes democracy work and the only sure guarantee that those controlling government will preserve rights and liberties, rather than trample on them.” What happens to this broad, collective vision when education is unbundled and made a matter of private, individual choice?

In many communities, schools are at the very center of civic life. They function as gathering places, repositories of neighborhood tradition and identity, and an engine of local employment. That’s why local residents, whether in small towns or big cities, have fought so hard against school closures. The shuttering of a vital community institution is often seen as a death knell for the community itself. In addition to the idea, and ideal, of school as a town or neighborhood center, there is the role that schools play as surrogate families — safe places where children spend their days while their own families work. As Harvard’s Elizabeth City put it: “If there is not a physical place for school, where are the children and who is looking out for them?”

Copyright © 2020 by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire. This excerpt originally appeared in A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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