Efficiency, Democratic Inclusion and Education: From Scientific Management to the Matrix

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This article is based on notes for an address to the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Policy Convention, February 2007. The convention was considering a number of education-related resolutions dealing mainly with school board governance and funding private schooling for special needs students. On June 9th, 2009 Nova Scotia elected its first NDP government. It will be interesting to see whether or not the new social democratic administration is able to imagine a different way of thinking about education and the democratic entitlement of citizens. I offer this meditation toward that end given that I positioned myself as a socialist at the beginning of this address.

I would like to begin by thanking the organizers for inviting me to address this policy convention. It is a rare opportunity for an academic to have the ear of decision-makers whose choices have considerable impact on the shape of schools and schooling in the province. I'm often fairly critical of the general direction of public education in Canada and in Nova Scotia, but I will make an effort here to be constructive.

I want to speak to you today about a tension in educational policy making between two competing ideas: the first is efficiency and the second is what I call democratic inclusion. I find in much of your party's material on education a fixation on the idea of "performance" that seems to me to mimic notions of efficiency in the context of industrial production. This, I think, is problematic and I think it typically leads (perhaps unconsciously) to educational outcomes that continue to fall short of what I think we all want.

Should schools be operated and governed primarily on the basis of principles of efficiency? This is a question that has been kicking around since the beginning of the 20th century when F. W. Taylor, the grandfather of industrial engineering, demonstrated that by altering the work environment and training workers, production could be increased dramatically. It didn't take long for educational planners to jump on the efficiency bandwagon and begin to design schools and curriculum along the fines of efficiency and what Taylor called "scientific management." I would argue that since that time, a good deal of educational policy thinking has been taken up in the tension between the administrative concern with efficiency and two countervailing forces: a) public demand for democratic governance of schools, and, b) expansion of educational provision to increasingly diverse populations.

By the 1920s, industrial engineers began to understand the limitations of Taylor's scientific management and they came to see that getting workers to produce more in the long run was a great deal more complicated than regulating the physical work- place and disriplining the worker. However it was not until much later that educators and planners began to see that the same principle worked in schools and that "production" may not be the best metaphor to understand schooling. Just as industrial engi- neers had to face the fact that workers are tliinking, feeling human beings whose choices and intentions influence produc- tion, so too did educators finally have to recognize that student learning is equally influenced by attitudinal and social factors. It is rather like trying to imagine an assembly fine where the raw materials are all individual and have minds of their own, and in fact can jump off the belt at any moment, demanding not to be processed. I expect you see the problem.

When sociologists began studying actual educational outcomes in the 1950s and 60s they discovered that there are patterns in school success or what we might call "educational production." First of all they came to learn (and this has been consistently replicated in studies around the world for two generations) that academic success is best predicted by the economic and educational success of a child's parents. At one level this is not surprising because when we think about those children who experience the most school success we associate them with parents who are in the professional middle class. …