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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

The following post is one of a small group I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. This one originally appeared in 2014. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

You have seen images like these time and again:


The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and–here is the surprise–admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes far beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent  in every aspect of schooling.

Over a half-century later, however, affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees. Reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So  recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine:



Of course, schools-as-factories is only one of the many metaphors for schooling used since the onset of tax-supported public schools. Philip Schlechty and Ann Joslin, for example, wrote three decades ago about different images that have been used by both advocates and critics of what schools should be doing:

the school as a factory
the school as a hospital
the school as a log in a pastoral setting with Mark Hopkins on one end and a
             motivated or able student on the other end
the school as a family
the school as a war zone

All of these have a history and were used by both reformers and their opponents. Embraced by different sides of the school reform spectrum at different moments in time, these competing metaphors lagged behind or seldom appeared in policy proposals advanced by reformers. The one metaphor that has persisted over the 20th century outstripping the others, however, has been the image of the school-as-a-factory even with in its shifting from positive to negative connotations.

Why has school-as-factory stuck?

The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction. Of course, current advocates avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory-made products. Yes, there are some advocates who even use the phrase “factory model of schooling” or “schools-as-factories” (see here). Moreover, many school reformers talk about the need for school districts to be efficiently run with superintendents behaving as CEOs.

Such reformers want schools to produce higher test scores on international tests than their European and Asian competitors. They want schools and teachers to be held accountable for what students achieve. And, most important, these reformers want schools to crank out fully prepared graduates ready to enter the labor market. These advocates want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability as harming both students and teachers.

Forty-six states initially adopted versions of Common Core standards since 2010. Of those states, five have withdrawn from these standards.

The sharp increase in snarky cartoons and irritable comments on state standards derived from Common Core ones plus support for standardized testing from both the political left and right, I believe, stem from century-old disputes over the multiple purposes that schools serve in a capitalist democracy (e.g., make citizens, prepare workers, build character). This age-old question of purposes for tax-supported public schools is seldom openly debated and too often has been lost in the rhetoric used by reformers over the past century.

And that, I believe, is the reason why schools-as-factories has stuck as an image as well as a metaphor tossed back and forth by generations of school reformers.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has pub...