Education and the cult of efficiency

I was having a conversation recently about why schools are still largely stuck in an industrial model. It prompted me to look for a book that I haven’t visited in a while but has been seminal in my thinking. ‘Education in the cult of efficiency’ by Raymond E. Callahan may have been published in 1962 but it continues to resonates today and will continue until we accept and recognise that schools are not factories; students are not products, and that the” improvement agenda” condemns us to repeating past failures.  And while I have argued that we can learn from innovative companies like Apple, Atlassian and Ideo (all of which are driven by the customer), we have spent the better part of a century failing to challenge the dominant business ideology that pervades our school systems.

Callahan and more recently Richard Elmore have argued that the institutionalisation of schools has led to educators being a ‘low-status and low-power’ group. Hence, why the learning and teaching agenda has been so strongly influenced by those outside of the profession. While Callahan reflects on the social forces that shaped public schooling in America, he admits early on that in the early 1900s, they had established a framework for a ‘noble concept’ of education. This was the time when John Dewey was espousing his philosophical position that schooling must be a ‘hands-on’ experience.

Schools at that time were not immune from the social (industrial) forces shaping America. The rise of the great industrialists and the power they wielded across politics and society may have made America great but as we are seeing in the US and in those countries that followed America’s lead, the industrialised efficiency model is now a blight on modern societies.

One aspect of the economisation of schooling, which Callahan brilliantly refers to as the ‘Descent into Trivia’ meant that school administrators were ignoring the substance of quality education in favour of spending time and energy on the mechanics (e.g. increasing class sizes, maintenance of floors, heating and toilet paper). This was in the 1930s – so to read Callahan again in 2018 is akin to reading a Greek tragedy only Callahan calls it an ‘American tragedy in education’.

If you read nothing else of Callahan’s book, I implore you to read the final chapter. Anyone working in and for education cannot but feel their ire rise by the great disservice we have done to millions of students. As Callahan writes so powerfully, the consequences of blindly adopting [business] values and practices and applying them with ‘little or no consideration of educational values or purposes’ is the great tragedy. He says that ‘it was a serious mistake in an institution whose primary purpose was the education of children and if the focus had been on producing the finest product (e.g quality learning and teaching) instead of aspiring to delivering schooling at the lowest cost, the outcome would not have been so adverse.

In summarising, Callahan provides the following reflections and recommendations to school systems in the free world:

  1. Society must realise that school systems have been caught in a vicious cycle since 1911
  2. The profession must work together with parents, politicians and the wider community to ensure quality schooling reigns
  3. There is no easy path to ‘genuine professional competence’ – it requires hard intellectual work to turn factories into places of learning
  4. Job satisfaction is just as important as salary in attracting teachers to the profession
  5. Transformation is a national challenge and it requires ‘bold and vigorous’ leadership from the profession and those in public life
  6. Educational leaders need to have a good grounding in humanities, social and natural sciences in order to understand the challenges of the age and make sound intellectual judgments based on the kind of quality education children will need
  7. Educational leaders require professional competence as well as the skills and knowledge to know whether the desired outcomes are being achieved (i.e. evaluating instructional efforts)

Finally, I would love to see Callahan’s final paragraph (although written for an American audience in the early sixties) in every staffroom as a constant reminder of why we must transform schooling today.

To do this, (America) will need to break with its traditional practice, strengthened so much in the age of efficiency, of asking how our schools can be operated most economically and begin asking instead what steps need to be taken to provide an excellent education for our children. We must face the fact that there is no cheap, easy way to educate a human being and a free society cannot endure without educated men [and women].






4 thoughts on “Education and the cult of efficiency

  1. Catholic schools have moved beyond providing education at the cheapest cost. Providing clean and inviting facilities can only add to the educational experience. Students were never commodities, but they do require some form of evaluation. The twenty-first century demands students have a different set of skills combined with literacy and numeracy to digest, process, analyse and master information.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful commentary. What book or paper are you referring to when you mentioned Richard Elmore. Thanks again, Deanna Burney

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Deanna thanks for your comments. I was referring to Richard Elmore’s Letter to the Editor published in The Age newspaper on 27 August, 2007. Hope you can retrieve a copy of it.

  3. Sadly Dewey was saying this in 1915 “From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside, while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life.”(Dewey, 1915)
    Until we move to authentic real life learning experiences for all students, giving them real purpose and understanding of where their learning fits in the fabric of this global world, we are limiting the opportunities for our students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.