The potential of the more flexible networking technologies will be unlocked only if the organizational model under which educational institutions have operated for nearly a century is redesigned to uncap the potential of the people who will use the technologies, Mr. O'Looney maintains.
THE FAILURES of our education system are repeatedly decried. Low test scores, cultural ignorance, and legions of apathetic, unemployable youths emerging from 12 years of formal processing are cited as the hallmarks of this failure.
Yet when the RJR Nabisco Foundation's Next Century Schools requested proposals for educational innovation, they reported receiving mostly stale reworkings of the same lockstep, factory-style learning programs that have dominated the educational landscape since the turn of the century. The basic model has seen some permutations in the form of team-teaching, open classrooms, individualized instruction, and the like, but these reforms have been piecemeal and have never threatened the overall pattern of a child moving from grade to grade, teacher to teacher, subject to subject, in a sequence laid out by educational "experts."
'FORDISM' IN PRODUCTION AND EDUCATION
Unfortunately, the designers of our current education package borrowed their ideas from Henry Ford, America's first successful mass manufacturer. Fordism offered a model of how to design and manage a mass production factory. The basic components of Fordism include a standardized product produced in high volume; workers who are low-skilled overall but who acquire a narrow specialty; a separation of management and design work from production work; a linear production process (e.g., assembly-line manufacturing); a de-skilling of production workers so as to reduce wage costs; a hierarchical organization based on task; a separation of those who process information from those who produce the information; and a geographical centralization of resources into large-capacity plants.
The Ford model, in essence, became the American model of production -- and of education. The model yielded considerable, if not inordinate, success for three-quarters of this century. The Ford model of production was aided by the destruction of the industrial base of most European nations in World War II, leaving U.S. manufacturing firms in a dominant position in the world. The parallel model of mass education was aided by the demise of labor-hungry agriculture and restrictive child labor laws, leaving children free to attend school.
THE 'FLEXIBLE PRODUCTION' CHALLENGE TO FORDISM
In the mid-1970s, however, foreign manufacturing, aided by new transportation and communication technologies, began to catch up with and in some cases to surpass U.S. industry. The challenge of "competitiveness," as many observers have noticed, has included a challenge to the U.S. education system, which has received a considerable part of the blame for our flagging productivity growth. The same education system that brought us to the pinnacle of world economies was suddenly being blamed for our more recent poor performance. What went wrong?
To understand the failure of our education system, it is first necessary to have a clear picture of the nature of the challenge facing U.S. manufacturing. Having followed the Ford model of mass production of standardized goods for so long and with such success, U.S. firms were taken aback by the ability of European and Japanese firms to penetrate the market. These foreign companies filled small niches in the world economy for moderate-cost, custom-designed, and precision-made goods and services. As the world's consumers have become more prosperous, the appetite for such goods has grown, pushing up the market share for these goods overall. What is surprising for Americans, who have generally worshiped the productive power of the assembly line, is that many of these more customized goods are manufactured by firms that follow a completely different model of production.
In their ground-breaking book, The Second Industrial Divide, Michael Piore and Charles Sabel outline the basic features of this other model. They suggest that particular areas of the world economy did not follow Henry Ford's path to mass production. Instead, these regional economies continued to develop the "old-world" model of craft production into what is currently termed "flexible production." This type of production matches highly skilled workers with flexible (often computer-controlled) machinery, so that short production runs of precision, customized goods can be achieved with only small retooling costs. The key to this type of production is the worker, who must be skilled in ways that only management and engineering teams are skilled under the mass production model.
The competition posed by flexible production has prompted many American companies to reengineer their manufacturing facilities to incorporate bits and pieces, if not entire segments, of the flexible production model. As a consequence, more employers are discovering that they need more than just a few educated managers; they need entire work forces that are literate and have problem-solving skills. Recently the training and education budgets for American corporations exceeded the combined budgets for all the public schools in the nation. Motorola has established its own university. Despite the need in some companies for a well-educated work force, many American companies are still organized around mass production processes that do not demand much skill on the part of workers.
What is important to realize is that models of education and models of production will tend to mirror each other. The mass production model of production places great emphasis on the values of regularity and tolerance for boredom; acquiring analytical skills is important for only a few. Our education system, with its small number of advanced and gifted classes (i.e., …