Rod Paige's Misguided Comparison of Schools and the Ford Assembly Line





Mr. Rees is Associate Professor of History Colorado State University - Pueblo.

In the September 15th issue of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell criticizes President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act for its "Fordist vision of the classroom as a brightly lit assembly line." In a letter to the magazine published in the October 6th issue, Bush's Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, responds.
Rather than contest Gladwell's assertion, Paige embraces Ford's "production principles." "Henry Ford created a world-class company," he writes, "a leader in its industry. More important, Ford would not have survived the competition had it not been for an emphasis on results. We must view education the same way." If Secretary Paige understood the entire history of Henry Ford's production techniques, he would think twice before making this analogy.

Henry Ford's great innovation was the perfection of the assembly line in 1913. The assembly line, although extremely efficient, had a devastating effect on labor. As the wife of one assembly line worker wrote to Henry Ford:"The chain system you have is a slave driver! My God!, Mr. Ford. My husband has come home & thrown himself down & won't eat his supper-so done out! Can't it be remedied?" Because of the assembly line, labor turnover at Ford rose to 380 percent.

School districts across the country have a problem recruiting teachers already. An assembly line regimen of endless standardized testing combined with the constant fear of layoffs will make the problem worse, not better. To get more, better-qualified candidates, we should try to make teaching jobs more appealing, not less. Analogies like this one won't help the situation.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige

School districts across the country have a problem recruiting teachers already. An assembly line regimen of endless standardized testing combined with the constant fear of layoffs will make the problem worse, not better. To get more, better-qualified candidates, we should try to make teaching jobs more appealing, not less. Analogies like this one won't help the situation.

Despite Gladwell's use of the term "Fordist," his main comparison is to "the industrial efficiency-movement of the early twentieth century"--people like Frederick W. Taylor and other disciples of scientific management. The full name of Henry Ford does not appear once in Gladwell's piece.

Gladwell's argument is that unlike a Taylorized factory, "learning cannot be measured as neatly and easily as devotees of educational productivity would like." Similarly, I have invoked Taylor elsewhere to suggest a deliberate effort on the part of conservative educational reformers to de-skill teachers so that they can be replaced by less-qualified personnel who will accept less money to do the job.

Ironically, Henry Ford took exactly the opposite strategy. Ford's solution to the turnover problem at his factory was the $5 day, first introduced in 1914. This sum was almost twice what the average industrial worker could expect to earn. While other businessmen denounced Ford as a traitor to his class, he knew that such a high wage was a necessity to recruit and keep labor.

Is Secretary Paige prepared to endorse doubling teachers' wages in a new Fordist educational environment? I doubt it, although I bet teachers' unions would stop criticizing his education policies if he did.

Another thing Secretary Paige should understand about Ford's principles is that they depended upon producing one simple product. During its early years as a business innovator Ford manufactured only one car, the Model T. A popular joke of that era credited to Henry Ford was, "You can have a Model T in any color you want, as long as it's black." In fact, Model Ts varied only slightly throughout their long production run.

If Secretary Paige is supporting a "one-size-fits-all" education system, he is violating the fundamental idea behind Republican educational policy--local control. If he isn't, then he's not really invoking Ford's production principles. Either way, his letter shows he has little understanding of the ramifications of his position. Education by assembly line may sound good to a conservative ideologue, but market solutions will inevitably hurt our education system more than they help.

At first, American consumers were willing to accept identical cars because they wanted cheap wheels. However, Paige should also understand that Ford's system did not beat the competition for very long. In 1927, Ford had to shut down production of the Model T to refit his facilities to catch up with General Motors, which offered a wide range of automobiles.

The No Child Left Behind Act essentially does the same thing to schools by setting standards that assure that many of them will get failing grades. However, the Bush administration doesn't want to invest the money needed to make failing schools able to compete.

"Is it possible," asked a retired elementary school principal from Iowa in the pages of the Washington Post recently, that the No Child Left Behind Act "is an elaborate setup, designed by those hoping to usher in an era of vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to public education?" Indeed, the Bush administration wants to convince parents that public schools are beyond hope and give as many of them as possible vouchers to send their kids to private or religious schools. That way there won't be any students left for the public schools to teach.

Paige suggests that "Just as Ford has shareholders to report to . . . taxpayers are our stakeholders." However, the people paying for education, the taxpayers, are not the same people who benefit from an education, the students. Run education like a business and taxpayers without school-age children will minimize their costs regardless of how it affects kids. After all, why should they pay for a car they don't get to drive?

Henry Ford's principles are not the solution to our children's problems. Instead, they should be part of their education. It's a shame Rod Paige didn't learn more about the entire history of what he's espousing. If he had, perhaps the Bush administration would be helping schools leave fewer children behind rather than making the problem worse.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


F X CARCIA - 1/3/2004

Read it (past tense)! Phenomenal Act of Levitation, from a local school district in Texas, to the executive, cabinet level of the United States Government!--ALL BASED ON FRAUDULENT STATS, SANCTIONED AT THE WHITE-HOUSE LEVEL!!

HOLIER THAN THOU ART WE! THE SLOGAN: "NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND," HAS BEEN FEDERALLY CODIFIED, AND WILL MAKE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THE ONE-AND-ONLY NATION, WITH THE ALMIGHTY'S WINK, TO BURY THE LESS-PRIVILEGED, AND, THE INCOMPETENT ADMINISTRATORS AND TEACHERS OF AMERICA, ALONG WITH THEIR HEATHEN, NON-CHRISTIAN CHARGES, TO THE PILE OF REFUSE, OUTSIDE THE WALLS OF OUR NEW JERUSALEM OF AMERICA.

WE, THE ANNOINTED OF GOD, ARE THE NEW GUARDIANS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY! WE ARE YOUR SAVIOURS, AMONG THE LIKES OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND THOMAS JEFFERSON! WE WILL MEET OUR LORD, ALONG WITH ALL BELIEVERS, IN THE AIR, THAT LAST DAY! GOD BLESS AMERICA!

NO, F X Carcia knows better.

GREETINGS ANNOINTED OF GOD!

F X Carcia will not submit to NLRB. WAR!!!!!!!

YOUR blessings are not for me and the kids I love.

YOUR INHERITANCE WILL COINCIDE WITH YOUR UNDERSTANDING.

Pancho Garcia
Brownsville, Texas USA







Jonathan Dresner - 10/27/2003

Dan,

While I agree with most of what you said, I would point out that the "one particular Party" of which you speak is actually supremely interested in "the economy, political niceties, nor culture or the unwashed masses." The difference is what they want to do with them, what kind of economy, culture, politics and society they want to create. It is not indifference; it is actually, I think, deliberate and malicious.


Dan - 10/24/2003

> This is a basic truth of human nature: people, including children, > will work hard at something that returns some real benefit. Those > benefits don't have to be financial... ...real intellectual
> satisfaction can be powerful...

Unfortunately, in Ford's case, the reward DID need to be financial because he took people who had a "real intellectual satisfaction" (skilled artisans) and replaced them with robots repetitively performing the same simple task time after time. One can only Zen a repetitive task so long...

> Second, taxpayers *are* stakeholders in education, and thinking
> about it I'm really suprised that we educators haven't been
> making this case loudly and consistently. An educated
> population is an economically dynamic population, a
> politically responsible population, a culturally interesting
> population... Every taxpaying adult benefits from educating
> today's children: without relevant and effective education the
> economy will decline, politics will descend into theater and
> chaos (yes, we still can fall further, much further), and we
> will be a culturally poor people.

This is true, but the same connection does not exist between POLITICIANS and the educated, which is why there is a concerted effort among one particular Party to cripple, if not eradicate, public education entirely. These people want to be elected, but don't care about the economy, political niceties, nor culture or the unwashed masses.

We already have alternatives to "high stakes, low quality testing." We are being systematically precluded from using such methods to a greater end.

Dan


Cary D. Wintz - 10/15/2003

I agree with Professor Rees that Secretary Paige is not familiar with all of the implications of the assembly line process instituted by Henry Ford. If he had been, he probably would not have used that analogy. Professor Rees, however, does not address the heart of the Secretary's educational program. What Secretary Paige is demanding is better prepared teachers; his goal is a lofty and ambitious one: a well-prepared teacher for every classroom. Paige also insists that we must measure the effectiveness of our teachers and our schools. We might disagree about how best to do this, but I know no one who does not support the underlying concept that good teachers make good schools.

Where Paige runs afoul of most professional educators is his belief that the most important criteria for good teaching is deep and broad knowledge of the content being taught. This challenges the concept embraced by professional educators and schools of education that the teaching strategy or teaching philosophy is what determines good teaching. The second change coming from the Department of Education is the effort to require empirical research to evaluate educational programs and teaching strategies. This is something that has long been lacking and is necessary to halt the practice of jumping from one untested pedagogy to another at great expense in both human and material resources.

All of us should support these efforts. The Department of Education Emphasis has not often emphaiszed either content or empirical research


Jon Burack - 10/14/2003

I am sorry, but it is utterly foolish to take Rod Paige's brief remarks about Henry Ford and assume he meant to model schools on Ford's assembly line techniques. To charge him with this is to engage in the worst sort of strawman mis-construction.

The point of Paige's response (and it was after all a RESPONSE to someone else who raised the Ford name), was the call for a "results" orientation in education (as opposed to an inputs approach. which is the sole focus of the educational establishment). This, as near as I can tell, is all Paige meant by it.

Ye even though Paige simply responded to the Ford reference in Gladwell's piece, Rees then implicates him in Gladwell's main focus on something else -- Taylorism. Paige didn't say anything about Taylor. Yet, lo and behold he is pinned, guilt by association style, to all the Taylorite imagery progressive educators have been railing against (forgetting, of course, that Taylor was at first a progressive education icon).

As in this from Rees: "An assembly line regimen of endless standardized testing combined with the constant fear of layoffs..."

This is pure rhetoric. Standardized testing can encourage mindlessness and it can test the highest levels of content learning and conceptual mastery. The notion that it bears any resemblance to an assembly line is the purest triumph of metaphorical thinking over logical argument.

Then there is Rees's absolutely laughable claim that the Taylorite spirit he attributes to Paige proves "a deliberate effort on the part of conservative educational reformers to de-skill teachers so that they can be replaced by less-qualified personnel who will accept less money to do the job. " This would certainly come as a surpirse to the likes of Diane Ravitch, to take one example, who has tirelessly exposed the poor training of social studies teachers, many of whom neither majored nor minored in history. Odd way to de-skill teachers, isn't it, to demand that they learn more before they teach?

What conservatives in fact want to do is require MORE of teachers in the way of training. It's just that they want them trained in subject area content rather than educationese ideology. As for pay, the key conservative position is merit pay, which would mean more money for the more skilled teachers. You can argue the pros and cons of that. But a program of de-skilling it is not.

This entire piece is based on an analogy run amock. Right into the mud. Like a model T, I would say.


Jonathan Dresner - 10/14/2003

OK, I'll take a chance. Factory schools are clearly a bad idea (and we already have too many of them, to be honest), as is the "No Child Left Behind" attempt to quantify, homogenize and demonize education.

But two things in this article strike me. First, Ford was the first to pay his factory workers a high wage for their extremely hard work. This is a basic truth of human nature: people, including children, will work hard at something that returns some real benefit. Those benefits don't have to be financial (though pointing out the long-term economic benefits of education isn't a terrible thing either, though extrinsic rewards are relatively weak inspiration for educational achievement): real intellectual satisfaction can be powerful; citizenship and social capital are enhanced, as well.

Second, taxpayers *are* stakeholders in education, and thinking about it I'm really suprised that we educators haven't been making this case loudly and consistently. An educated population is an economically dynamic population, a politically responsible population, a culturally interesting population (ok, ok, there are exceptions in both directions, but generally speaking). Every taxpaying adult benefits from educating today's children: without relevant and effective education the economy will decline, politics will descend into theater and chaos (yes, we still can fall further, much further), and we will be a culturally poor people.

This doesn't mean that education should be run in a business-like fashion: even businesses don't all run in a uniform and Taylorist fashion, particularly in the information age. It does mean that the critical importance of education can and should be reintegrated into our national consciousness. Maybe then we'll come up with better ideas than high-stakes, low-quality testing.

History News Network