Factory Schools: Turning Out Products Instead of Learners

Is it a classroom or an assembly line?

Over the past several decades policy changes like the introduction of No Child Left Behind have instituted a system of standardized testing mandates.  These tests – which seem to grow in number every year – are administered to students en masse and require all students to demonstrate skill at an identical set of tasks regardless of the students’ individual aptitudes or stated specific professional intent.  At the high school level, these tests include the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, the ASVAB, and any standardized tests mandated at the state level.  School funding, educators’ jobs and salaries, and students’ academic futures serve as the collateral to guarantee participation.

As a consequence, districts feel pressure to prepare students for the format of the examination.  The Cramer County School District officials, knowing that students would be taking multiple choice standardized tests, encouraged us to administer most of our tests in a multiple-choice format.  I had many students who had so little experience with essay or free response questions that they would simply leave all such questions blank, completing only the multiple choice portions of the test without even attempting to articulate a response.  I had to teach them that it was okay to think for themselves and express their ideas.

Al Gonzalez started a discussion about education reform on his blog, and brought up a good point in the comments:

I wonder if we didn’t have high stakes, standardized testing if we would be able to offer kids more choice. We force feed many of the concepts to help kids do well on a one-day-a-year, hit or miss test. It’s awful. I do believe in exposing kids to multiple ideas so they can find things they can be passionate about but they do need some choice so they can pursue their childhood passions.  - Al Gonzalez

By building a system of rigidly structured standards assessed by inflexible multiple-choice tests, replacing individual choice with education-on-rails, we deprive children of their greatest motivator:  Passion.  We are slowly but surely building a system that doesn’t turn out learners so much as it turns out products.

Perhaps the most heinous loss in the standardized testing surge is the damage done to critical thinking.   How best could you gauge what someone knows about a topic and teach them how to think and communicate about the material along the way?  Would it be by drawing them into a discussion on the topic itself and evaluating their responses?  How about through having them design a demonstration or give a lecture on the topic?  Or by having them write minute papers?  Or term papers?  Or through group work like laboratory exercises, jigsaw groups, or team-based learning?

All of the approaches I’ve just mentioned, unlike multiple choice testing, allow for the instructor to evaluate not just what the students know, but how the students approach problem-solving.  I tried to incorporate as many of these activities into my curriculum as I could, but there’s only so much time that can be spent on any one concept or activity and none of these approaches help students prepare for the format of the standardized exams.  In short, the system often mandates that teachers operate at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, focusing on the most elementary sorts of thinking while neglecting higher-order reasoning.

One model of Bloom's Taxonomy


We are trading in our ability to think in exchange for skill at standardized tests.   

The students suffer for it.

In spite of all the evidence, U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan tweeted the following on March 26th:

All states need rigorous standards to prep students for college/careers & I’m committed to supporting states in that work.  - Arne Duncan

Mr. Duncan, student differences ought to be celebrated – not frowned upon and tested away.  If we’re going to provide our kids with quality education, we need to focus our quality control at the front end – by hiring and retaining teachers we can trust to design content the students will benefit from in a student-centered way.  The content we teach our kids needs to evolve to more closely reflect the demands they face in modern society.

If you have a spare ten minutes, I strongly encourage you to view the following video from Sir Ken Robinson.


Factory Schools: Turning Out Products Instead of Learners — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Book Review: High School Confidential | Schooled

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