Batch Processing Students on an Assembly Line Using the Factory Model

There’s a revealing little clip in ‘Waiting for Superman’—the feel-bad documentary that was designed to damn public education before revealing and promoting its amazing new successor, charter schools. WFS was loaded with such cartoon animations, weak analogies and essentially irrelevant video captures from TV shows and industrial films from the bad old days (meaning always) when public education utterly failed students. This particular clip shows groups of students on conveyer belts being transported to their destinies as either well-educated ‘leaders’ or, alas, farms and factories, based on the schools they attend.

The belabored point being: a better education (now available by lottery!) would save kids—just like Superman does— from what, generations ago, were considered the natural outcomes of their station in life. Education—not parent income—as magic carpet to a materially good life.

I am heartily sick of reading about the also-inherited, traditional ‘failings’ of public education. I don’t want to read another column about the Committee of Ten and how, 125 years ago, they got it all wrong and now we’re stuck with a useless curriculum and ineffective instruction techniques. I don’t want to hear about the factory model of schooling and how clueless, timid, non-disruptive folk are running public schools like egg crates, isolating teachers and students in age-related cohorts, unwilling to innovate.

Ten to one, the proposed solution involves a whole lot of expensive technology, to ‘individualize’ or ‘personalize’ education for each and every child. But this isn’t a blog about kids and endless screens and profit-making and using unfair metrics to compare students’ memorization skills.

It’s about the concept that much of what happens in school, right now, with students in batches and the same curriculum and instruction being delivered to all 4th graders, factory-like, rather than custom-tailored is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, those old habits work pretty well. A great teacher can build a fine learning community (a phrase I don’t always trust) and teach the kids’ socks off. It happens every day.

And furthermore, people already doing the actual work—teachers—are a lot more amenable to carefully thought-out change, when you don’t refer to their current practice as an ‘assembly line.’

Hanging out on Twitter, I caught this comment from Dr. Tony Wagner, well-known author, presenter and expert on disruption and 21st Century education.

Tony Wagner‏ @DrTonyWagner 


Yes. Our assembly line education system was designed to both sort kids and also to batch process large numbers of immigrants & kids from farms to teach basic literacy & numeracy for the industrial era. Think of it as the “Model T” of education. Now we need “Tesla” schools.

Bearing in mind that he’s Dr. Tony Wagner (author of six books, as he points out during some contentious discussion following the next tweet), and I am just a small-potatoes teacher blogger, I nevertheless was irritated enough to respond:

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20

If you really want to transform public education, please stop using dismissive language like ‘batch process’ and ‘sort kids’ and ‘factory model.’ Your zingy ‘Tesla’ comment overlooks the millions in R&D spent on cars, but not on kids.

Dr. Tony Wagner Replying to @nancyflanagan

.@nancyflanagan My comments describe a system’s intent & is historically accurate. It is not a criticism of teachers who do their best in spite of a bad system design. I was one. And I agree that we need more $ for education. Tesla is an analogy for system redesign & edu R&D.

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20 Replying to @DrTonyWagner

‘Assembly line,’ etc. *may* be historically derived, but are still a rank insult to the creative, humane work of modern educators, who don’t see kids as widgets. If you want genuine change, begin w/ those already leading it, not slam-tweets damning the ‘system.’

Because that’s the thing. All folks who are serious about dramatically changing an outmoded educational system feel they have to start by verbally tearing down time-honored practices first. It’s not a quid pro quo—supporting and strengthening what’s good in our community schools does not necessitate name-calling or castigating everything that we’ve been doing for years. Things like circle time, class discussion, reading silently or out loud, Q &A, on-demand writing, group work and games have not outlived their purpose and efficacy. Working with others doesn’t get old.

There are plenty of successful nations who are ‘batch processing’ children in same-age cohorts and getting good outcomes.  Here are 12 recommendations from Finland via the Hechinger Institute (sorry—I know—Finland again) on how to improve American public schools and not one of them suggests that we further ‘individualize’ education, using fine-tuned technologies. Instead, the focus is on community, trust and the well-being of children.

And please—can we stop saying that while a physician from 1918 would not recognize a surgical theatre from 2018, but classrooms today look pretty much the same? In addition to being false—there have been sweeping changes in purposes, practices and technologies at every level—it also overlooks the fact that most of our old-fashioned classrooms look that way because they’ve been seriously neglected for decades.

I do need to note that Dr. Wagner did not shy away from conversation on the Twitter exchange, even when challenged by more sharply articulate tweets than mine. But he has great influence in Ed World. He and other big-name commenters should not be recycling disrespectful ‘factory school’ language. It’s harmful, not helpful.





  1. Thank you Nancy. It really hacks me off when I read a big guru’s comment like this. I know he depends on telling us how broken things are so he can sell books & be a big keynote speaker…but come on. For at least the last 20 years, I’ve been in middle schools that have been the polar opposites of the factory model. I see teachers wearing themselves to the point of exhaustion trying to personalize, innovate and keep the humanity in their bulging classrooms of 30+ kids, 6 sections a day. I’d invite anyone of the big names to come in sit in any class within my building and honestly be able to say that it is a factory model. We do need to call them out. I’m definitely going to get with it and start doing a better job of pushback. It isn’t true in a large scale sense—



    1. Tony Wagner is always careful to say that *he* was a teacher, for six years, so he knows how it is. And he says he doesn’t blame teachers–he blames the system. As a long-term veteran teacher yourself, you know how ‘the system’ has evolved, especially in the last 20 years. There’s plenty of innovation (not all of it good), driven by policy (not all of it good) and commerce (much of it random and incoherent). So–to blame the system and position teachers as helpless victims, then suggest that YOU know how to fix it, after throwing down a few catchy (and inaccurate) insults, well…

      Thanks for posting.



  2. Like many armchair teachers, Dr. Wagner does not seem to grasp the scale at which the public education system works. Nor does he seem to appreciate the many aspects of the K to 12 experience that reach far beyond the scope of instruction. He doesn’t appear to have any understanding of the straight jacket constraints produced by transportation, state and federal mandates, sports, BOE pressures, breakfast and lunch programs, budgets, contract language, teacher pay, parent demands, and scheduling limitations. Is he aware the of the countless variations of the school day, the school year, and the school curricula that have been toyed with, within those constraints. And maybe, if he thought seriously about complexity of transporting, housing, feeding, teaching, and caring for 50 million children in 100,000 school buildings, he just might realize that the fundamental structure of the system that he rails about, has remained in place, all things considered, because it actually works.



    1. Thanks for commenting–and especially for mentioning transportation, sports, Boards, contracts and so on. SO MANY reformers completely overlook the complicated (and district-unique) infrastructures that build up and make a school community what it is. It’s not just a new curriculum and fresh new (cheap) faces in the classroom.

      In my hometown, the Muskegon Heights district was taken over by the state six years ago, as it ran out of money and posted some of the lowest test scores in the state. (MI has an emergency manager law to seize public assets and put them under state control.) Michigan turned the district over to a charter management operation (CMO), Mosaic. There was a big public meeting to explain what was going to be different. All the old, unionized teachers were released, and some were offered half their old salaries to come back. Mosaic hired an entire staff of new teachers, many of whom were not properly certified. And they brought in tons of computers.

      At the meeting, Mosaic wanted to talk about the new, digital curriculum. But what the parents wanted to know was two things: Would there still be buses? What would happen to the (award-winning) basketball team? For them, the ‘school’ part was secondary to regular transportation and basketball.

      The Mosaic experiment lasted two years. Claiming that they couldn’t make the expected profit, Mosaic pulled out of the contract. None of this was good for the district. But it was innovative and disruptive, all right.



  3. I love the car analogy when the basic shape and function of cars *has* stayed the same for over a hundred years, and the stuff that’s changed is on the inside. So, pretty much exactly like schools currently are: outside, in shape and function, looks similar; inside, VERY different from 100 years ago (special ed, for example, is a thing, as are ELL classes/support).

    We should start attacking car companies with comparisons to horse and carraiges. Because that’s what cars are based on, right? Must be stupid; it’s old! People from previous generations were always very stupid, you know, and never came up with innovations that might last.



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  5. I love the car analogy when the basic shape of cars has stayed the same for over a hundred years, and the stuff that’s changed is on the inside. So, much exactly like schools currently are: outside, in shape and function, looks similar; inside, very different from 100 years ago.



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