Factory based schooling: the only answer for the poor?

Taking a break from two days of writing about history and remembering over at www.green-mangoes.com, because last night during a Facebook discussion that centered on the dismal state of our compulsory education system, I was told by a fellow commenter that I sound like a slave.

Yes, a slave.

The woman making the comment was offended by Michael Ellsberg’s metaphor in which he likened our system of schooling and those in it to drug pushers.   The commenter in question didn’t get the metaphor, and said that school is the only safe haven for many of the kids she teaches who come from broken homes, etc.  She criticized Michael for not “embedding” himself in the system and for not using his influence to affect positive change.  The thread of the conversation was long and involved, and the “slave” comment directed at me came after I’d posted the following:

“As an unschooling Mom, I often get criticized for not sending my kids to school. I’m told that if I want to change the system, then I should do it from within. What I am basically doing, I’m told, is a cop out. But here’s the thing – school reform? Ain’t ever going to happen. And do you know why? Because schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do – to turn out obedient workers who have the most rudimentary education. This is why, despite all the rhetoric, our factory school system has not changed much in over 100 years. Schools are not failing. Once we accept that fact, then perhaps we can move forward and stop criticizing those who see it and refuse to take part in it.

I would recommend you talk with Lisa Michelle Nielsen, who until recently was a DOE employee. Her division was eliminated due to budget cuts shortly after being lauded for its’ forward thinking and innovation with using technology in schools. I repeat, school reform is not going to happen.”

I then made a statement to the effect that if the commenter had read any of Michael’s writing, she would know that he is pretty much dedicated to using his influence to affect positive change.   Shortly after, she posted this:

“I am not sure that those who are spewing so much hate towards the school system really understand the complexities in teaching children. Sure, homeschooling works for some. But not for those in poverty. Not for those who are not natural teachers. It simply does not work for our society. It’s easy to look at the school systen from the outside and scream for change. You cannot be an outsider if you were once an insider. Amy, you sound like a slave.”


I honestly do not know which of my statements prompted her to tell me I sound like a slave, (slave to freedom?  slave to my children?  slave to the idea of self-directed learning?  no idea) but her defensiveness and animosity got me thinking.

Why do people believe that factory based schooling is the only viable option for kids in poverty?   For kids from broken homes?   Are they right about that?   Is compulsory schooling their only shot at improving their situation?

To answer this for myself I had to look back at the history of compulsory schooling, which is closely tied, at least in the U.S., to child labor laws.     Up until the early 20th century, poor children worked in factories alongside their parents, often in sub-par conditions and up to 14 hours a day.   One of the benefits of compulsory schooling was that it got kids out of the factories and into schools.   In this way, they were spared from the backbreaking work and given an education.   They were able to better themselves.

I can’t find any statistics on how that worked out in practice.   Yes, children were protected from sweatshops and horrible working conditions.    But did it lift them from poverty?   If the purpose of factory based schooling was to do away with the working poor, then could we not expect that, by now, over 100 years in, we would no longer have any working poor?  (Or non-working poor, or illiterate adults?)

Of course I’m sure the opportunity for schooling did improve the lives of some.  Maybe even many.   But to what degree?  Yes, sitting in a classroom would have seemed a major improvement over standing for 12 hours in a factory.  (Although, if you’ve never read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” you really should.  Those early classrooms were no walk in the park either.)  Perhaps the entire working class inched up in their earning ability.   Were they guaranteed better pay in the factory at the age of 15 or 16 because they’d been to school?

I don’t have the data to answer that question, and of course there are other factors that contribute to poverty besides education or the lack thereof, but if you listen to the rhetoric, the only way out of poverty is factory based schooling.

My conclusion?  That way of thinking is a major part of the problem.

Look, I don’t know if poverty CAN be defeated in our society.  Too many people in our country think that helping the poor in any real way will turn us all into SOCIALISTS!   I do know that simply forcing kids into schools is not going to change anything.   Factory based schooling is not the only route to an education.  It’s not even the best route.

It is true, traditional homeschooling where a parent stays at home with the children and assists them in their learning, is not available to many poorer kids whose parents work or are on drugs or in jail.   Does that mean that the ONLY option for them is factory based schooling?   Forever?  Of course not!  Come on people, we are better than that.   How about expanding the role of libraries in our communities?  How about introducing open learning centers where kids can spend their days?  How about more free schools?     What if all those caring teachers out there demanded that the factory based system be ditched in favor of something more productive?  More conducive to actual learning?  What if we revived the role of apprenticeships on a broad scale?   There are answers out there.  We just need to find them.

I know I have not presented a detailed solution here.   Maybe it’s just the slave in me talking, but I feel the only way we will get to a viable solution for everyone is to keep questioning, keep pushing, keep encouraging the families who can leave the system to do so, with an eye to developing a way for others in less ideal situations to follow.

The sooner the better.


4 comments on “Factory based schooling: the only answer for the poor?

  1. Christa says:

    Schools don’t have to look like they do now! I really, really wish people had more imagination. And guts. We could have, as you say, free schools, open learning centers — so many more ideas than just desks and core curriculum standards. How we “school” now is not the only way (and for many, nowhere near the best way) to guide or serve children!

  2. Miriam says:

    I completely do not understand the “slave” comment. But there are many things that could be done, even staying with the “traditional” style of classroom. But I also have attended school board meetings; talk about an exercise in futility!

  3. Hi Amy,
    I saw that conversation, but I think I must have left before you were being called a slave. I really don’t see where the term “slave” fits with what you were saying, but… (do we have an emoticon for shrugging shoulders?)

    I thought the teacher came across indignant and defensive from the get go. And this is part of the problem. We can’t ever move forward on a solution when those teachers in the trenches feel attacked for any questioning. The sad part is, they KNOW it’s a mess. And they have a hard time extricating themselves as individuals from the system itself. And, you could argue that they ARE the system – and technically, all of us are. But until we get away from blame and defensiveness, I don’t hold out much hope.

  4. Keith says:

    “If the purpose of factory based schooling was to do away with the working poor, then could we not expect that, by now, over 100 years in, we would no longer have any working poor?”

    I think it is a practical issue that there are always poor, since it is a relative concept. No matter how well people do, there will always be some that are doing better than others, and those who are not are defined as “poor”. By worldwide standards, American poor are downright wealthy, as many of them have cell phones, refrigerators, etc.

    To answer the question, I think it is important to look at the relative difference between the “poor” and the “middle class”. Were the poor of 100 years ago much more worse off than the middle class of that time, as compared to the same groups today. Clearly, the rich are much better off now than then, so I think measuring the gap is possible.

    I think today’s poverty line is around $20K and the median income is ~$45K, so that’s only a 2x difference. If that gap was indeed much worse back then, it would be safe to say that the living conditions of the poor have improved. That is of course, not to say that factory schooling has anything to do with it. I suspect that technology has been a larger factor.

    Nonetheless, I agree with the bulk of your sentiment. The status quo seems to only see one way of doing things, and that is a classroom environment. Such an environment begins in August/September and ends in May/June, and operate Monday through Friday approximately 8am to 4pm. K-5th graders have one teacher, and 6-12th graders move between classrooms. They generally have 25-35 students per class. You are assigned your school based on the neighborhood you live in. Even private schools and charter schools all follow this same pattern (except for the geographical restrictions). There are no real revolutionary ideas or options out there; not yet anyway. Until there are, none of our children, poor or otherwise, are really going to be helped.

    Yet, there is a glimmer of hope for those willing to go it on their own. In states where homeschooling laws are flexible, there are starting to be some options. Online schools (I remember dreaming of these when I was a kid!) and homeschool groups are starting to gain traction. But they require more effort on the part of the parent. For the poor with their dual income parents, perhaps working more than one job, there isn’t much room for such effort. And they are further restricted by the funding arrangement: property taxes. In this climate, any such options would have to be backed by the government, as the people don’t generally do well constructing these things on their own and there is limited call for private business to foot the bill for primary education.

    So for a practical solution, we would have to start by changing the way schools are funded. Maybe vouchers would be a good idea, allowing students to go to any school, and creating more of a free-market incentive for new types of schools to be invented. Of course, such a system does exist now with the idea of charter schools, but these schools are still mandated by state law to follow many of the same rules as public schools (such as mandatory participation in state standardized testing). Vouchers without freedom from these rules would serve no purpose.

    Or, instead of collecting property taxes, perhaps something more like a primary school loan would be better. Federal and state government can provide nearly interest free loans to all students, without strings or restrictions on the type of schooling purchased, and the student would pay it back over a lifetime. Yet this comes up short as well, since that would move the burden of the cost of educating the poor onto the poor themselves. The theory that these students would not be poor and therefore able to repay the loan later may be too much of a gamble, since schooling doesn’t seem to be the major determining factor in poverty.

    Maybe we should move away from a city- or county-based property tax system, and into a way of collecting funds more evenly, so that poor neighborhoods don’t entirely pay for their own schools; that the costs are distributed across all income levels. That would not be popular amongst the wealthy, and they do appear to control the laws.

    I may not be the best at coming up with solutions, but it is clear that alternate ideas are not easy to think up, since none seem to be present in a free market system. In the end, we may all just be slaves to the system because there is no better, workable system to be had.

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