The Operating System of Education is Broken

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book I hope to finish this year. I also recently read a great article that reinforced my thinking on this topic. Please take the time to go to and read a perspective on the “achievement gap” that is thought provoking by Dr. Camika Royal.

The importance of the underlying “operating system” of the school system cannot be overstated. The command and control operating system is often accepted as a “given” with few people stopping to conceive of another OS. Progressive educators at the turn of the 20th century recognized the inherent dangers in accepting the assembly line operating system, but their voices had little or no effect. (Please take the time to read John Dewey and Jane Addams so you can gain hope that there are other operating systems out there that can be used in our schools.) The result is our current system of education with its severe reliance on control and compliance. You simply cannot separate the industrialized school system from the command and control operating system. If we are to change our educational ecosystem to one where the Learner is actually at the center, we must “upgrade” our school operating system.

Let’s recognize something important: our school system is modeled on an industrial factory. There are two important ramifications for learners when discussing our industrial model of school. The first ramification revolves around management of the school system. Bells ring, grade levels place learners in “batches”, grades “sort” learners much like quality control sorts raw material in a factory. There are also more subtle ramifications to the industrialized schooling model. Namely, the values and mores that are transmitted because of the management structure of schools. An industrialized system demands compliance and conformity. Thus, compliance and conformity are rewarded in schools as learners stay out of trouble (or not) and conform to the biddings of the “system”.

A typical early 20th century factory

Our current school system was created in the image of a factory. The modern school system was created during the height of industrialization across the world. Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie revolutionized the work in factories by instituting concepts that led to mass production. The most profound innovation was the use of the assembly line. Henry Ford in particular led the way in creating the assembly line which was efficient in turning raw material into a working product. Before the assembly line, workers would put together large sections of the vehicle in one work space. Material was brought to the vehicle being assembled for inclusion in the manufacturing process. This required that workers be proficient in many different aspects of the assembly process resulting in a limited number of vehicles that could be assembled in a day. After all, workers were required to move frequently away from the assembling point to gather parts for the next step in the assembly process, slowing the process of assembly. Ford considered the movement of the workers as wasted time and inefficient. Instead, he devised a system where the vehicles moved on an assembly line from one station to the next while the workers stayed in place and specialized in one discrete task in the assembly process. In this way, there was no wasted motion and inefficiencies were driven from the process. An empty chassis started on one end of the assembly line and a completed vehicle appeared at the other end of the line.

Henry Ford quickly discovered that workers did not like to do the same (boring) repetitive task thousands of times a day. Many of the workers, out of sheer boredom, would deviate from the prescribed routine. This drove Ford nuts. Any small deviation from routine would have a snowball effect on the rest of the assembly process and significantly slow down the entire production process. The question that Ford had to answer centered on management. Essentially, Ford created a management system to assure the workers do exactly what the system required them to do on the assembly line exactly when he wanted them to do it. A system of command and control was created to make sure workers stayed on task at all times. Workers were told explicitly what to do and foremen, supervisors monitored the foreman to make sure they did their job. This compliance system reached all the way to the factory manager. A command and control system goes hand in hand with an assembly line process…you can’t have one without the other. An entire organizational system is required to assure that all workers in the plant are compliant to the process.

School leaders at the turn of the 20th century, influenced by the assembly line method, created a school system that mimicked a factory. Just like a chassis move through the assembly line, batches of learners move through the assembly line with added parts (curriculum) added to them along the way. Teachers act like glorified assembly workers placing parts where they are supposed to fit on a learner. The reformers that created the industrialized school system adopted the model of the assembly line system also installed (by default) the command and control systems required in an industrialized assembly line factory. Teachers are workers on the line, foreman are principals to assure compliance from the teachers, superintendents are there to assure compliance by the principals. Learners move from room to room to accommodate the teachers so they would not have to move. I know teachers who taught in the same room for 40 years! Bells are used to notify Learners and teachers when the next stage of the assembly process is to take place. The result are schools that dehumanize Learners and de-professionalizes teachers.

A new operating system for schools replaces key parts of the command and control structure of “School 1.0”. School 2.0 has as its focus a new learning ecosystem centered on the learner and the ideal learning experience.

The New Learning Ecosystem

At the heart of the ecosystem is the learner and the learning experience. Creating learning experiences for the learner that are relevant, engaging, and meet the learning needs of the learner, may seem to be obvious. The ramifications of placing the learner and the learning experience at the center of everything the school does is radical. All decisions by the school board, administration and teachers are filtered through the lens of radical learner centeredness. When this occurs, the structures from School 1.0 become obsolete. Learners are not moving from room to room to have curriculum “placed” in their heads. Rather, decisions on learning are based on what is best for the learner, not the convenience of the school operating system. The role of the teachers shifts from one whose job it is to depart a specified knowledge base to one where a teacher facilitates the knowledge learners are engaging in. Since learning is disentangled from the factory model, there becomes more flexibility in where learning can take place and when learning takes place for learners. Finally, when the command and control structure is taken away, more opportunities are open to other stakeholders to participate meaningfully in the learning of the student.

This is a quick overview of the new operating system of education. I appreciate your comments and insights about this important topic…please leave your thoughts in the comment box.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

2 thoughts on “The Operating System of Education is Broken

  1. This is a great concept Tom. In order for this to happen, the federal and state governments would have to relinquish control. Do you think they ever will do that, or will they consider replacing how they assess teacher performance?

    The models used now to assess teacher performance is badly broken. As you know, poor teachers continue to be poor teachers. It’s easy for an educator to mask performance for one observation lesson and spp and standardized test scores are not a viable source to assess teacher performance.

    I think the model of putting the student in the center is something special education has done for decades. This year alone I have 15 students. I teach 5 math levels and 7 reading levels. The only whole group learning I do is history and science, and that is with differentiated assignments. Having said that, I know my spp will always be low because of my kids taking alternative tests, which is so wrong.

    Something needs to change and soon. Student centered learning needs to look at two things. The end goal and the student. How can we help the student achieve and attain the end goal? My fear of student centered learning would be that poor teachers wouldn’t help a student grow. How could we assure this?

    1. Sherri, Thank you so much for leaving a comment. I appreciate what you are saying because you get right to the heart of the dilemma those of us in education who want to change the system face…the accountability movement. As I think about the first part of your comment (the State and the Feds relinquishing control) I ask you to to re-frame your thoughts. Instead of thinking about them relinquishing control, think about the control you, your school, and your school leaders have in the current system. I believe that we have more latitude to do what we think is “right” than we know. I have spoken about “positive deviance” in the past (and will again here on this blog). Briefly, the concept of positive deviance is to find the outliers in the file you are interested in and discover how they are being successful. So in this case, we need to look at the schools that are moving toward being radically learner centered despite all of the reasons not to. Examples like Pequea valley and central York in Pennsylvania, Harrisburg in South Dakota, and Lindsay Unifies School District in California. They are all undertaking significant structural changes because they embrace the freedom that does exist in our current system.

      As for your second point about teachers…we know there are more dedicated, passionate teachers than there are poor teachers. Helping all teacher become better (and out counseling those that should not be in the profession) takes courageous leadership on the part of principals and superintendents.

      Just some thoughts of mine!

      Thanks again for commenting!


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