Taylorism and the New Cult of Efficiency: Treating Students and Teachers as a Commodity


As the school year limped to an end the teacher union released a membership survey, assessing the performance of the Chancellor, mirroring the Department Environment Survey, and, a few days later the Department issued their own Surveys  reflecting the views of teachers, parents and students.
Education in the 21st century has become a commodity. The new Nielsen Ratings  are test scores and surveys.
The history of the business approach to school management has a long pedigree. More than forty years ago Raymond Callahan (“Education and the Cult of Efficiency”) described the impact of Frederick W. Taylor, an “efficiency” expert in the 20s whose influence was still evident in the schools in the 60s.
 What is wrong with today’s schools, he argues, is not that they are dominated by the ideals of progressivism, but rather that they have fallen into the hands of narrowly trained administrators who preach the gos­pel of economy under the guise of science.
In 1994 Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, and has had an enormous impact on the world of business management. Senge’s theories of businesses as changing learning organizations were applied to schools in his widely regarded Schools That Learn, and he continues to work with school leaders.
The application of business management to schools has relevance, but, does the end product, children, differ from the business end product: profit?
Increasingly leaders of school systems have come from outside the world of education. A retired admiral followed the retired Governor of Colorado in Los Angeles. Paul Vallas, a businessman lead schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and now in New Orleans, and, of course, in New York City, a lawyer.
Joel Klein has been strongly influenced by William Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA and the author of the Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge (1981).
Ouchi applies his theories to schools which have become the philosophical core of the Klein administration,
 Researchers discovered that the schools that consistently performed best also had the most decentralized management systems — individual principals, not administrators in a central office, controlled school budgets and personnel. They were fully responsible and fully accountable for the performance of their schools. With greater freedom and flexibility to shape their educational programs, hire specialists as needed, and generally determine the direction of their school, the best principals will act as entrepreneurs, says Ouchi. Those who fail are placed under the supervision of successful principals, who assume responsibility for the failing schools.
Ouchi and the free marketeers see the marketplace, the conflicting forces of supply and demand, as totally applicable to the world of education. They are the modern day Frederick W. Taylors’.
When a business fails, when an industry disappears or moves overseas the worker is the victim. S/he may have to take a significant decrease in salary, or, move to another part of the country, or retire, or fall into the cycle of unemployment and poverty. Can we equate the displaced worker with the student in the failing school?  Can we simply cast aside the “failing” school, and, their widgets: the students and teachers.
Should we concentrate on leadership and leave it up to the principal to create an effective, achieving school? Displaced teachers, just as displaced workers are simply a side product to be discarded.
How many parents/caregivers have marginal employment? How many of our kids have a primary care physician? How many suffer from childhood obesity? asthma? abuse? poor diet? How many are in foster care? single caregiver households?  What is the impact of surrogate parenting? As the Center for NYC Affairs Report  shows children in the foster care system face enormous obstacles.
To ignore the world of our students and simply apply the mechanisms of the management is foolhardy, and cruel.

3 responses to “Taylorism and the New Cult of Efficiency: Treating Students and Teachers as a Commodity

  1. perchance2dream

    Shrewd insight… and true, unfortunately. Our universities are filled with obsolete thinkers who pass themselves off as experts in fields from which they are far removed. In fact, these “experts” are in the business of selling their ideas, books, and consulting services. It really has little at all to do with the schools, or the children.


  2. Some related thoughts that might be of interest, on The Global War on Taylorism:



  3. Callahan should be required reading for anyone involved in school reform and education in general today. Thanks for citing it.


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