yes, it may be efficient, but is it education?

I was distracted from Frank Smith's Writing and the Writer (also excellent! go read!) by Education and the Cult of Efficiency. This book, published in the 1960's, details the advent of the "business ideal" of teaching--and the struggle of public education to simultaneously be "efficient" and educational.

I enjoyed this book on a number of levels. I enjoy reading history, and I'm woefully lacking in my knowledge of the history of public education. This book focuses on the time period from 1900-1930 when the "cult of efficiency" and the glorification of business and monetary success first began and took hold of the public education system. Callahan does an excellent job of pointing out the positives of efficiency (breaking up monopolies, creating a public awareness of what business was doing) and detailing the gradual encroachment of business into public education.

The emphasis on "efficiency" affected schools deeply. Much of the direct effect came from the turnover in school boards--which went from self-termed "scholars and civil servants" to being filled more and more by local business leaders. At the direction of the school boards, studies were done to discover the most efficient way to "run" a school.

It must be noted (and Callahan does) that "running" a school efficiently has little (if anything) to do with educating well. In fact, the idea of efficiency was one that encouraged an explosion in class sizes that are still being felt today. What is more efficient than cutting down the number of teachers and allowing them to teach more students? In fact, one principal pointed out that "love of learning is now to be discouraged because it brings down efficiency." These studies also encouraged efficient building--prompting schools to create cookie-cutter classrooms and losing out on a number of specialized rooms like woodshop, sewing, and cooking that require "non-standard" set-ups.

This book is incredibly relevant today. The echoes of "efficiency" cannot help but be felt in discussions of NCLB and "basic skills." Nothing is ever truly the root of all evils, and NCLB is no different, it is merely today's incarnation of yesterday's demands for all schools to educate students for "the business of tomorrow." In addition, this book made me question what I am teaching my own students. Do I emphasize success as something that can only be calculated monetarily? Am I doing my part to encourage inefficiency and exploration? In a time when teachers and students are feeling more and more like "cogs" in a machine, what can we do to move the focus from counting attendance to inspiring creativity?

It seems a daunting task.