Redesigning the Work of Education

Article excerpt

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.[1]

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. …