The History and Impact of the Efficiency Era on American Education

My copy of Education in a Free Society
My copy of Education in a Free Society | Source

Rippa (1997) describes in detail the effects the Civil War had on the South. The war spurred an immense advancement in business and commerce, which lead to more focus on business and corporations. One major movement that arose during the twentieth century was the accountability and retrenchment movement. The accountability and retrenchment movement came about because of the push for efficiency from the business community. This in turn trickled to the world of education in many ways.

National Association of Manufacturer's Initial Impact

The main reason the drive for efficiency was based on the business community is the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) did not think school was utilitarian enough. Since business was booming in the twentieth century, businesses gained wider interest in the public: obviously the pool for up and coming applicants. Another important factor was business was becoming more prestigious (Callahan 1964). Thus, the business population gained a greater say in what education should be. However, the movement for efficiency would take a toll on American education.

Impact of Business World

There were some notable changes to education based on the influx of influence from the business world. The attention of education rapidly moved away from being focused on the needs of students to the needs of businessmen (I am not being sexists here based on the time period) (Callahan 1964). NAM believed that children should have more “vocational training courses” because teaching anything else was impractical (Rippa, 1997, p. 127). Children were more than likely going to spend the rest of their lives working in factories, and NAM felt as though reading, writing, and arithmetic were not going to be useful. Through publications and other means, business leader presented their reasons for why public schools were inefficient: “Half of all our children leave school…with only the rudiments of education which, in large part, the speedily forget, and with no preparation or guidance for life work” (Ripp, 1997, pp. 127-128). Speeches, like the one just quoted from, helped business and industry control education on all levels.

What Was Happening At The Time

  • The concept of the "Old South" was fading.
  • Public education in South became unorganized.
  • Southern colleges and private academies closed.
  • The The Peabody Education Fund established.
  • Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois' stances on education become popular.

Business Leaders Infiltrating Education

What allowed the business leaders to take over education was the fact that school administrations was vulnerable. Still in its infancy during 1910, school administrators willingly accepted the beliefs and techniques of the business world (Callahan, 1964). The growing respect for businesses enabled unqualified businessmen to say what was good for children and academe. Unfortunately, the new (business) administrators had no educational background and were not educators (Callahan, 1964). New school boards wanted efficiency in the school. However, the efficiency businessmen wanted was not educational; it was economic. The emphasis of education became the “lowest cost” per child instead of “producing the product” (Callahan, 1964, p. 244). Overall, cutbacks in money provided for students and schools hindered the improvement of education. The educational situation was even worse in upper levels of education, like high school. Schools became more like machines: the students would go in one end and come out with diplomas on the other end (Callahan, 1964). Businessmen gaining control over education and wanting efficiency created all of these problems. But academe was also to blame for readily accepting changes from those who were not experts or barely had a modicum of knowledge about the various aspects of education.

In Sum

Because businessmen were able to obtain superior positions in education, mainly as administrators, American schools changed dramatically. Businessmen valued economics and low cost over ensuring learning and the acquisition of knowledge. The beliefs and values of business leaders led to the movement for accountability and retrenchment. Unfortunately, American schools are still suffering from the damage produced centuries ago. But then one must wonder, did this phase of American education ever go away. There are many issues concerning the role and purpose of American education. The point is money has, will, and continue to determine what kind of education a child will receive: just read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. It seems either American education is experiencing the pendulum swinging back or it never moved. Consider the influence that business leaders today have on education. For the sake of space, I will just name one example, Bill Gates.

What Do You Think

Do you think we are still seeing the impact of the Efficiency Era?

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Callahan, R. E. (1964). Education and the cult of efficiency. University of Chicago Press.

Rippa, S. A. (1997). Education in a free society: An American history. (8th ed.). New York: Longman.

Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2014

Stephanie Crosby
Stephanie Crosby | Source

About the Author

Stephanie Bradberry Crosby is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and Reiki Master. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, and Education and high school English teacher. She is a doctoral candidate in Education: Curriculum and Teaching. She runs her own home-based business, Naturally Fit & Well, LLC, which includes her all-natural, handmade, and customizable product line, Natural Herbal Blends. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.

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Comments 12 comments

B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Up, useful, and quite interesting. I shared. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here in Michigan some Republican rightwing reactionary politicians are pushing to make public schools private and profitable at the same time the are cutting education budgets and passing anti teachers' union laws. Your hub leaves unanswered the question what is/are the mission(s), the why, of education.

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Sooner28 4 years ago

Business leaders don't want a population that will ask hard questions of the status quo. Why are businesses not paying the full costs of pollution (environment, human health)? Why are some CEOs paid millions, while many of their workers earn minimum wage? Why is health care not seen as a human right?

Our society needs a substantial restructuring. The concept of a CEO needs to disappear completely, and businesses need to be owned by the workers.

StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

B. Leekley, thanks for your comments and sharing my article.

You are absolutely on point with things staying the same. In education, the same old techniques simply get spruced up with a new name. What you explain is happening in Michigan is very much happening in New Jersey (where I live) and other states. Our governor claims to be the biggest supporter of education (because his mother was a teacher) while systematically stripping away everything that makes us educators and professionals.

You are also right that I do not even try to tackle the mission(s), the why, of education. These are obviously loaded and beyond the scope of this article. But believe me, there will be follow-up in various ways that will chip away at these questions.

Thanks for reading!

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Hi Sooner28. I had to chuckle when I read your opening line, not a funny "ha ha" but a "that-is-so-true-and-sad." You definitely ask poignant questions, to which the answer right now is "because they can."

While society may need a major overhaul, many people also realize it starts "at home" and for many that actually means "at school." When America was still finding its roots, everyone in the country understood the importance of education and that a premium was placed on women raising culture conscious children that would be patriotic and so on. That same concept is still around, but now schools are shifting the curriculum to develop more culturally cognizant students that are civic minded. How do I know? The whole April 2012 issue of Educational Leadership published by ASCD was dedicated to "College, Careers, and Citizenship" as put in big print of the cover. Now educators are supposed to learn how to teach student to be socially responsible and good citizens. I'll just the rest of that discussion for another day.

Your idea for how businesses should run is very much like a member-managed system. And it would be interesting to see if more big corporations switched to something that is common for small businesses.

But the substantially restructuring you discuss is also pertinent to education. Many people say they focus on "reform" efforts. However, that is often too little and not truly what is happening (they are actually doing "renewal." D. Conley (1993) gives a great distinction between "renewal, reform, and restructuring." And you are right to say we need restructuring.

Thanks for reading!

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Sooner28 4 years ago

I agree about change starting at home. If a parent teaches a child to be a critical thinker, then they would question the parents, and that would be really annoying (even when the parents were right). It's easier to teach your kids to be submissive so they will be easier to control. And that is completely understandable. A five year old in wal-mart who is defiant and makes a scene still has to learn the basics of human cooperation; however, a questioning attitude towards the major institutions of society is essential to a hopeful future.

I am about to read a book about the history of American education, and how it was adopted from the Prussians. It's main goal is to produce obedient, productive citizens who don't have the critical thinking skills to ask the big questions, but also are not so stupid they cannot handle various business occupations. I think standardized testing needs to go completely, and student-centered education should be the future, where just because a student is slow, they are not stuck in special education and forgotten about. Bright students could also move faster than the norm, and therefore would not be bored by being lumped in with everyone else.

Too bad Obama isn't pushing for that kind of change!

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Sooner28, the book sounds like an interesting read. What is the title? You are far from being alone with thinking standardized testing needs to go away. However, it is too big of a money maker to go away quickly.

I also agree with learner-centered instruction and techniques. Actually my dissertation will focus on much of the content of your last two sentences. However, I will look at non-traditional learners at the post-secondary level and a theory called heutagogy (self-determined learning not to be confused with self-directed learning which many are familiar with) which is an extension of andragogy (learner-centered and adult learning).

prospectboy profile image

prospectboy 4 years ago from Texas

As unfortunate as it is, money controls almost everything. Whether it government, the church, the school system etc, money and finance plays a huge role. Many of the people at the top don't care much about the quality of education the youth is receiving. It's more about lining their pockets up even more. Great informative and well written article. Voted up.

StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

prospectboy, I don't think anyone can argue against what you say here. And previous comments have made it clear that money is the root of the problem.

It is a shame because many educators really do want to do good and make sure students are well prepared. However, there are many forces working against well-meaning educators. We often get booted out of the system or put through a torturous hell before we can make lasting changes to the system.

prospectboy profile image

prospectboy 4 years ago from Texas

I definitely agree that there are some educators who mean well. It's hard for those who are because like you mentioned there are forces working against them, and most of the time the people at the top are behind many of those forces.

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

There really is nothing else I can add to your comment, prospectboy, since it is dead on. Thanks for stopping back by to comment!

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Excellent, depressing because it is true and very useful article. Thank you for writing this. SHARING

StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Hello phdast7. Thanks for reading. I agree the situation is depressing. However, I do not see any major change for American educational institutions any time soon.

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