Factory model school
"Factory model schools", "factory model education", or "industrial era schools" are terms used to describe educational organization and facilities. The terms emerged in the mid to late-20th century as a rhetorical device used by speakers and writers advocating for a change to the American public education system. Generally speaking when people use one of the terms, they are referencing characteristics of European education that emerged in the late 18th Century and then in North America in the mid-19th century that include top-down management, standardization, outcomes designed to meet societal needs, age-based classrooms, efficiency, and a focus on producing results. The phrase is typically used in the context of discussing what the author identifies as negative aspects of public (or government-funded) school. For example, the factory model of schools are "designed to create docile subjects and factory workers". It is also used to incorrectly suggest the structure and look of American schools hasn't changed in 100 years as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has in tweets and speeches. Educational historians such as Jack Schneider and Sherman Dorn describe the phrase as misleading and an inaccurate representation of the development of American public education.
History of the Terms
The first public use of the term "factory model schools" to describe K-12 education was by Dr. Howard Lamb in a speech in September, 1972. The Greenville News reported: "The educational institutions are producing teachers for the 1920 factory model schools, Lamb said."  Previously, Theresa Jablonski, in a 1970 editorial in the News Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania), referenced "factory model of education" to describe college classrooms. Although it's likely that neither Jablonski or Lamb originated the term, their usage represents the terms' first appearance in the media.
In a 1989 piece in The Phi Delta Kappa, "The Horse is Dead", Dr Leslie A. Howard connected the term to Horace Mann's experiences in Prussia in 1843 but offered no references or evidence for the connection. Howard's piece was cited in numerous educational philosophy and theory texts in the 1980s and 1990s. The phrase has been used by education leaders including Marilyn Roth of the National Education Association, in 1987. Al Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, referenced the concept in a 1989 speech, "The Revolution that is Overdue: From Information Factory to Learning and Teaching in Restructuring Schools." Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America (2018), used the term in a graphic to describe the evolution of the American education system. In the graphic, "factory model" is connected to the year 1893 (the year the NEA Committee of Ten published their final report) and the goal of training "factory workers." The Committee of Ten report makes no mention of factories or factory workers. Authors will also draw connections between child-labor laws, factories, and the spread of tax-funded schools and compulsory education laws such as Seth Godin in his book, Stop Stealing Dreams (2004).
John Taylor Gatto's book The Underground History of Education published in 2001 linked the "factory school" model to a number of cultural ills and also connected Mann to Prussian factories. Gatto's text has been cited by multiple non-fiction books on education including The End of Average by Todd Rose (2015) and Schools on Trial by Nikhil Goyal (2016), both of which use the phrase to advocate a particular set of changes. Gatto does not explain how he reached the conclusion Mann wanted schools that worked like factories.
"Factory Model" as a Metaphor
In some cases, authors have used the term "factory model" as a metaphor. As a modern example, the animation and text of Sir Ken Robinson's TedTalk compares students in schools to materials in a factory and references children's "date of manufacturing" as a sorting mechanism. This clearest example of this in historical writing is in the research of Raymond E. Callahan, especially in Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962). Callahan explored the relationship between public education and the emerging concept of Scientific Management in the 1910s and included quotes by school leaders who spoke of children as the "raw goods" schools were meant to mold into something better. The most prolific user of this analogy was Ellwood Patterson Cubberley. He saw the logical, methodical approach of scientific management as a way for public education to adapt to influxes of immigrants, white female students, and Black American children that were entering into the system and ensure the best outcomes. Cubberley wrote numerous guides for school administrators as well as a history book and was one of the most widely read educational authors of the 1910s and 1920s. He frequently used the metaphor of school as a factory and it's not uncommon for modern day authors to take his and his contemporaries' comments out of context.
A theory that deeply informed school leaders during this period was the work of Frederick Taylor. His approach to time management was known as Taylorism and it influenced multiple aspects of American society, including education. An example of its adoption in the home are the experiences of Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, whose scientific approach to parenting was described in their son's book Cheaper By the Dozen. In schools, this philosophical approach - that any problem could be solved by breaking it down into smaller units and considering time costs - was used in a variety of ways. For example, a group of English teachers in 1913 aggregated how much time they spend grading papers and used their findings to appeal to school leaders for more time to grade and provide feedback.
While teachers would use Tayalorism to their advantage and to plead their case, they also spoke up against it and its impact on their work. In 1903, Margaret Haley chided school administrators for failing to recognize teachers' hard work and a tendency toward "factory-izing education" and "making the teacher an automaton, a mere factory hand, whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position." Haley used quotations around the phrase "factory-izing education" in her speech, suggesting she saw it as a metaphor, and not a direct comparison.
Although the phrase "factory model" didn't become a part of educational discourse until the 1980s, David B. Tyack, a leader in the field of educational history, provided a context for it in his history of American urban education, The One Best System (1974). "Just as eighteenth-century theologians could think of God as a clock-maker without derogation, so the social engineers searching for new organizational forms used the words 'machine' and 'factory' without investing them with the negative associations they evoke today." This idea that school leaders spoke about factories as a frame of reference is also explained in Pillars of the Republic, Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl Kaestle (1983).
Schools thus became in some respects like factories, but not necessarily because they were mimicking factories, or preparing children to work in factories. Rather, both the workplace and the schools, as well as other nineteenth-century institutions, were partaking of the same ethos of efficiency, manipulation, and mastery. (p. 90)
Problems with and Critiques of the Terms
Setting aside that school leaders around the turn of 20th century used factories as a metaphor and not a philosophical foundation, there are at least two problems with the terms.
Horace Mann presented his thoughts following his trip to Prussia in a report to the Massachusetts Board of Education. He filed several reports and his 7th submission focused on his experiences in Europe. Filed in 1844, the report contains no reference to Prussian factories nor mention of concepts like efficiency, trained workers, or docile children. While this alone isn't sufficient to refute claims about a factory model mentality informing the development of American schools, it does challenge claims by authors like Taylor Gatto that Mann was eager to replicate a model of education that would train children to work in factories. Likewise, the final report by the National Education Association's Committee of Ten makes no reference to factory skills or to modeling schools after factories.
The "Look" of Factories
Factories that existed around the time of Mann and the spread of the common school movement don't resemble factories in the way we think of them today. The most in-depth look at the discrepancy between the phrase and the actual look of schools and factories in the 1840s is The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education' by Audrey Watters. Even though historians have taken different perspectives on the influence of merchants and manufacturers on the rise of the Common School movement, there is a consensus that the focus of education for most of American history, especially at the primary levels, has been about general knowledge, not the specific skills required for factory work.
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- Callahan, Raymond E. (1962). Education and The Cult of Efficiency. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
- Report on the cost and labor of English teaching by a committee of the Modern Language Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of English. https://archive.org/details/reportoncostlabo00moderich. 1913.
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- Kaestle, Carl (2011-04-01). Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9781429931717.
- Mr. Mann's Seventh Annual Report: Education in Europe. 1844.
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