Design is an expression of purpose.”
Thinking about school design propelled me back in time, 30 years ago, to a period in my life in which I studied Aristotle’s Physics, specifically, to a passage there about his concept of telos, or final cause. Telos means “that for the sake of which” a thing is done. In the rush of life, it is easy to skip an inquiry into the ultimate purposes of activities and institutions. But such an inquiry can yield profound insights, especially when one contemplates design.
During my life, I have had much exposure to the telos that animates school design: as a student in a variety of schools all the way through graduate education; as an educator teaching and working on the design of college and secondary education programs; and most recently, as founder and board chair of a charter high school serving at-risk youth in one of Pennsylvania’s most troubled school districts.
When we experience school design as students or educators, we are fully immersed in the arena of action, closely tethered to the systems we seek to understand. The ever-pressing urgency of our responsibilities and the relentless academic calendar—tests and papers that must be written and graded, lessons and projects that must be delivered and completed—make it difficult to gain some distance, some perspective.
Perhaps my most profound experience of school design, however, has been as a parent. I am blessed with four children, all of them currently attending public schools. They run the gamut. At one end, I have a child with very severe learning deficits arising from autism. He has always been a special education student in need of extraordinary help. In contrast, one of my children participates in his school’s program for gifted learners.
As parents, we step back from the daily reality of the school as an institution; at the same time, however, we serve as fiduciaries who are vitally interested in school design. The schools have custody of those we cherish during their most vulnerable and critical developmental years; we know that our children’s experiences in school will deeply affect their future success. To be vitally interested in a process while lacking immediate power over it motivates many parents to think deeply about how schools work. Parents also have a valuable historical perspective: we cannot help comparing our children’s school experiences with our own. Parents and grandparents together can bring decades of relevant historical perspective to an inquiry focused on school design.
Schools as Achievement Factories
During our lives, the metaphors and the mental models employed to think about the purposes of school design have evolved. Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, a dominant framework in educational policy, philosophy and politics has been to think about our educational system using metaphors drawn from the marketplace, business and production. This approach tells the story of a worldwide business competition to produce human beings with the highest possible intellectual skills. The United States is said to be stumbling in the race. In turn, the imminent collapse of the nation’s educational system threatens the failure of the nation’s economy and the precipitous decline of our international power and influence. The nation’s failing schools have caused this impending doom. As was written in the report that launched thirty years of reform:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983)
The widespread concern reflected in A Nation at Risk about the poor student abilities produced by our national education system brought about a national movement focused on education outcomes. Outcome-based education reform demanded shared standards, comprehensive curricula that set forth specific, measurable outcomes in terms of knowledge and skills. It demanded that student advancement require achievement of these outcomes and that objective assessments measure student progress. It demanded that schools dedicate resources to the attainment of outcomes for all students.
These reforms reached full maturity in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). As President George W. Bush explained in a 2006 speech in support of the law:
I know those of you involved with public schools understand that we're now living in a global economy…What happens abroad affects the lives of our students in the near future. If a child in China gets a good engineering degree and a child in America doesn't, it means China is likely to be more competitive in the twenty-first century. In other words, we've got to get education right, not only because it's a national responsibility, but because we're in a global world. Whether we like it or not, there is competition for jobs of the future that are going to—that will take place. And, therefore, it's important that we make sure that our children get a solid foundation early in order—so that our country be competitive, as well as our children.
That schools must produce better students in the service of national economic performance became the rallying cry propelling decades of reform in school design. What was the implied telos? Our collective economic competitiveness.
Processing Information, Processing Students
Deeply embedded within the outcome focus of the movement leading to NCLB, a vision of education widely accepted today, is another critical mental model related to production but also imbued with metaphors specifically drawn from the discipline of information technology. The school system as a whole, individual schools, the work of teachers and even specific course work with students can all be understood through images associated with computer software programs and technology. There are data inputs, processes executed upon these inputs and finally, data outputs that alter the inputs so that they are beneficially reconfigured and improved in the service of the programmer’s needs. According to this way of thinking, schools have inputs in the form of children and curricula. Algorithms are executed upon the children as they are processed through the school’s information system, its academic programs. When the children emerge from the production line, we expect that they will be improved so as to allow for their performance of the tasks that concern the programmers. In this view, schools exist to add value to children as units of national production. After the schools process the children, the graduates will be more efficient and thus more valuable within American production processes. This serves American competitiveness, thereby aiding our economic growth and our international power. A nation that achieves academically also achieves economic prosperity. A prosperous market can be taxed. Taxes maintain our military power. Our market and our military power sustain our leading role in the world. So the story goes.
Beyond the metaphorical information technology landscape that has infiltrated our thinking about school design, the increasingly widespread deployments of real computers and software—in the form of assessment tools, instructional programs and computer-based learning schemes—have reinforced the idea that schools should be high-tech factories. Studies tracking educational technology spending in schools suggest consistent growth in a market that is rapidly approaching $8 billion annually. Schools invest this avalanche of funds in a broad range of functions including hardware such as tablets and smart boards, courseware, instructional support and digital learning resources. Such high-tech environments enable the trend toward data-driven instruction in which teachers and students cycle through a relentless process of testing, analysis of student performance, instructional planning and delivery of instruction targeted to specialized and individualized student needs guided by common core academic standards. Educational technology promotes production efficiency. This allows for cost-effective scaling of breakthrough performance enhancements to the educational production cycle. As the White House Council of Economic Advisors wrote in its 2011 report Unleashing the Potential of Educational Technology:
Working together, stakeholders can form a plan of action to provide local school systems with easy access to good information about the effectiveness of various educational technology products and give prospective developers of these products access to customers on a scale sufficient to make it worthwhile for them to enter the market. The payoff – in the form of more effective and more widely utilized educational technologies, leading to better outcomes for students – could be enormous.
The overarching vision of schools as high-tech production facilities that mass produce student achievement—a flow of students pumped out of schools after having been improved through the addition of valuable knowledge and skills—has a powerful impact on education design across a broad range of learners and schools.
Ideas Have Consequences
My oldest son is currently a student at one of the top-ranked public high schools in Pennsylvania. In his junior year, he participated in many advanced placement (college-level) classes, including, for example, courses in American government and calculus. His teachers in these courses boasted about their effectiveness with reference to specific data: superlative assessment outcomes measured as the number of 5s (the top score) earned by their students on the AP exams. This objective—to have as many students as possible earn 5s on the AP exams—heavily influenced the course content. For example, what could have been an intellectually engaging exploration of American civics (a subject vital to understanding current events and numerous critical issues facing communities across the nation) instead became a grueling exercise in the memorization of historical details, along with unending practice sessions for the AP multiple-choice test. My son found this American government course boring in the extreme. The experience very nearly killed what beforehand had been a burgeoning interest in American civics. Nevertheless, he was able to score a 5 on the test. His calculus course was similar, involving a grueling process of mastering fleets of difficult, abstract calculus problems designed to approximate what he would confront on the AP exam. During his preparations, I asked my son to explain to me how calculus was used in science or technology. He could not, but he nevertheless earned a 5 on the exam. What mattered was passing the test, not understanding how people actually use calculus in their work.
Similarly, at our charter school serving at-risk youth, focus on production quality impacted our academic design. Our school serves a population of high-school-age students with severe academic deficits. Up to 90 percent of our learners arrive at our doors four years or more behind grade level in reading and math. Many of our learners will have spent less than a year in our school before taking statewide assessment exams. The state judges the quality of our teachers and our institution in large part based on our students’ performance on standardized reading and math tests, without concern for or recognition of their deficits upon their admission to our school. In the eyes of the state, our job is to reach the production standard, period. The state views any external explanation for low proficiency (e.g., drug addiction, teen pregnancy or homelessness—common problems within our student body) as the school seeking to excuse its own poor performance. The reality that our success as an institution would be so measured understandably prompted our teachers to organize boot camps to attempt to accelerate performance on these tests. They were motivated to employ specialized software provided by the state and designed to pinpoint areas where individual student performance might be amenable to remediation. Evenings and weekends were spent engaging students and their families in an effort to improve their performance on the assessments.
Our teachers and administrators understood the process of preparing for the standardized tests as a necessary evil. It was not the highest or best use of our instructional time. It was not an expenditure that would provide meaningful academic gains for our students. Nevertheless, we needed to boost performance on the standardized tests in order to survive as an institution. Unless our students satisfied the demands of the assessments, we would not be able to attend in the future to the school's meaningful mission of laying a broad-based foundation for learning that encompassed numerous elements not captured in the assessments. These other elements (not assessed on the statewide tests) involved social and emotional development, creativity, leadership, the development of motivation and persistence and progress toward curricular goals in art, science and social studies. The realpolitik in which schools trade off what they believe to be best for their students in exchange for short-term gains on standardized tests is commonplace in education today. The underlying concern is the same one that created my son’s grueling exam preparation experience rather than offering him access to real college courses in high school. Our school designs devalue a learning experience if it cannot be scientifically proven to be valid through a standardized assessment. In the same way, our designs value a learning experience that can be verified through a standardized assessment, even though everyone may understand intuitively that it lacks real educational benefits.
The vision of schools as production facilities focused on standardized assessment has an important impact on student engagement. The metaphor of production and processing encourages school systems to see students and families as passive units of production moving through an educational assembly line. In the widget factory, we do not blame the widgets for being defective. We blame the factory and the assembly line workers. Students and their families are deemed not to be responsible for academic results. It is not students or families who fail but rather their schools and teachers. It is not students and families who need to be accountable for academic progress but teachers and their support systems. When students fail, teachers should be fired and schools should be closed. Similarly, when students succeed, it is the teachers, schools and administrators who deserve the credit and the rewards.
The Obama Administration has perpetuated the educational paradigms that were advanced so powerfully during the Bush administration. One of the central components of Race to the Top, the Obama Administration’s signature education program, is a focus on teacher performance defined as the ability to tie teacher effectiveness to student outcomes (US Department of Education, 2009). A critical policy lever advanced by Race to the Top has been insistence on merit pay for teachers in the form of additional compensation awarded to those whose students achieve on standardized assessment tests. Bill Gates, chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and another advocate for merit pay, has suggested that successful teachers should be given larger classes and compensated accordingly (de Vise, 2011). Other features of Race to the Top, such as the adoption of Common Core curricula and the focus on data-driven instruction and on turning around failing schools, maintain NCLB’s single-minded focus on school performance and outcome-based education. The consequence of this policy focus is to conceive of schools as factories that can produce better-quality products and to view children and their families as passive units within the production process.
Thinking beyond the Assembly Line
You may be surprised to learn that the impetus to transform schools into achievement factories was based on misinformation and, further, that the law’s approach has yielded few measurable gains. I recommend two thoroughly researched books written by Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations and who at one point was a staunch NCLB advocate. In The Death and Life of the Great of American School System (2010), and also in the more recent Reign of Error (2013), Ravitch debunks the significant mythological edifice upon which schools-as-factories has been erected.
Consider the following: During the past 50 years, a period of extraordinary economic growth in America, the nation’s students have generally scored about average on international assessments or even in the bottom quartile. Is there a correlation between high comparative international academic assessment test scores and excellent national economic performance? Actually, there is not. The supposed golden era during which American schools outperformed their peers in other countries on international assessments is complete fiction (Ravitch, 2013, Ch. 7). Indeed, some of America’s most productive economic periods followed times during which its students scored at the bottom of international comparisons. What about the terrible history of academic failure in which more and more students score lower and lower on objective academic assessments? That too is a myth. The most objective measure of test performance available to us, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows consistent gains over the last 40 years, and particularly over the past 20 years, in both reading and mathematics. This is true for White, Black and Hispanic students (Ravitch, 2013, Ch. 5; Ch. 6). But isn’t this academic progress attributable to those who have insisted that schools be run like businesses, focused on production quality? Actually, no. The reality is that significant improvements have been evident in schools that continued doing the same things they were doing before NCLB. Some schools that focused on high-tech performance models show little or no progress. And in many cases, the gains in schools doing the same old thing were better than those from the schools that decided to reengineer themselves to become achievement factories (ETS, 2010; Ravitch, 2010). In Finland, which enjoys the highest performance on international assessments, there are no required, system-wide, national achievement tests, and schools are free to focus on creativity and the arts as central pillars of their pedagogy (Hancock, 2011). But don’t believe me—read the data reports that were too voluminous to include in this essay. The details may be surprising and out of sync with mass media reports, but they are readily available.
In contrast to legions of policymakers, parents do not see their children as units of production that need to be upgraded by the nation’s education system so that they can be put to work expanding the gross domestic product. Parents tend instead to see their children as human beings, as ends in themselves. Parents understand that education is important to long-term self-sufficiency and the ability to make a contribution to the community, but they do not see education as an industrial process in which human beings are among the raw materials. Parents tend to think about education as a critical step in the pathway to maturity, as a road that leads to creative personal responsibility. Parents also understand that it is vitally important for their children not only to develop academic skills but also to develop as moral and social beings who care for one another and for the society and world that they inhabit. Children are not widgets in need of value-added processing; they are not data units to be efficiently analyzed and subjected to strategic interventions; they are, rather, participants in society who have worth irrespective of their ability to become part of a production process in their maturity. Those who think like parents see the intrinsic worth of children as the prerequisite for their contribution to the world, not vice versa. The poet Kahlil Gibran captures the idea in these lines:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams (1923)
How would schools be designed if we could remember that children have souls that dwell in the house of tomorrow?
The Spirit of John Dewey
The parental vision of schools, an alternative to the industrial/information-technology processing model, also finds expression in John Dewey’s American educational philosophy. Dewey envisioned the educational process as inherently social, imagining schools as interactive social communities in which engaged children learn how to live within a democratic society. The end of schools in Dewey’s view is to provide educational experiences. An educational experience is one that has continuity, that both allows for future experiences and positively impacts the conditions of experience to allow for personal growth. Most importantly, Dewey viewed education as an end in itself: “Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (1897).
In our school systems, Dewey's spirit is still alive, if embattled. He can be located in the special education programs, like many across the nation, that taught my autistic son to read and converse, that engaged him in the social functions of the school and that promise him inclusion in society even though he cannot register achievement on standardized tests and probably will not help America in its race to the top. The special education system thinks he matters as an individual, that he is worth educating for no reason but his education itself.
It is worth noting that while we struggle to emulate nations with high standardized test scores, many of those societies are ironically attempting to learn from the American system that we seem to think is broken. Foreign scholars believe that the US school system’s decentralized, standard-free nature allows for experimentation, individualism, innovation and creativity and that these qualities may be responsible for our powerful economic growth. In our single-minded quest for achievement, we may have become blind to the unique system values that have produced American economic success (Zhao, 2009).
There is wisdom in human nature that transcends both popular science and the latest trends in our national and local education policies. Our national quest to make schools serve as production centers of human excellence may come at a terrible price: the objectification, one might even say widgetization, of those supposedly being served. At best, it may be a case of the successful operation that kills the patient. Since the dawn of human civilization, we have known that the development of the young requires their energetic engagement as human beings. It requires attention not simply to performance but to nurturing the human spirit. It requires schools to remember that children are capable of creativity and responsibility. The end of schools may lie beyond our grasp until the telos is simply education, period. And while education’s telos remains focused on nothing more than achievement pressed into service for production, the design of schools may, indeed, be their end.
Bush, G. W. (2006, October 18). No Child Left Behind & American education: Address in North Carolina. Retrieved from http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/10.18.06.html
de Vise, Daniel. (2011, February 28). Bill Gates talks about teacher pay, class size. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2011/02/bill_gates_talks_about_teacher.html
Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. The School Journal. LIV(3), 77–80. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/john-dewey-my-pedagogical-creed/
ETS. (2010). The black-white achievement gap: When progress stopped. Princeton, NJ: P. Barton & R. Coley. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED511548.pdf
Executive Office Of The President Council of Economic Advisors. (2011). Unleashing the potential of educational technology. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/unleashing_the_potential_of_educational_technology.pdf
Gibran, K. (1923) The Prophet.
Hancock, L. (2011). Why are Finland's schools successful? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/
National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://datacenter.spps.org/uploads/sotw_a_nation_at_risk_1983.pdf
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error. New York, NY: Knopf.
US Department of Education. (2009). Race to the Top program: Executive summary. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf
Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development