Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

Larry Cuban explains why the ‘school as factory’ metaphor sticks.

His answer: it works for liberal reformers and conservative reformers.

Liberal reformers, like Maria Montesorri and Ken Robinson, use the factory model to show how it dehumanizes kids, strips them of their individuality, and aims to produce a dull citizenry.

Conservative reformers, like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, use the factory model to show how this inherent infrastructure can be used to apply scientific management to improve every aspect of the school.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

You have seen images like these time and again:



The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a long but surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and 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

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