Inappropriate Time and Motion



Another piece cropped on the front page (Web) of the Globe and Mail yesterday about how teachers should be paid for performance rather than on seniority: I guess it had been too long since the Globe had taken a shot at teachers and at the public school system. Much of this grousing stems from the lack of desire on the part of those most endowed by out current economic system to pay for the enlightenment that should be the outcome of a thorough education for all, rather than just those students whose parents can afford to send them to Upper Canada College or Jean Brébeuf. It can also be the eagle stirring her nest, so that her young ones don’t get no rest (h/t Maria Muldaur for a 1974 recording of an old spiritual), meaning that we can’t let those fat-cat teachers get too comfortable.

Back in the early part of the last century, Frederick Winslow Taylor engaged in studies of industrial production, using time and motion studies as a way to building efficiency into the process of industrial production and refining the idea of measurable outcomes. It has become frequent practice to try to subject schools to the same process, usually by those who represent industrial output and who would like to defund the school system, or at least minimize it and bend it into a factory for productive labour. There are some flaws in the idea, and it’s interesting that the best debunking of the idea came from none other than Peter Senge at a conference in Victoria a dozen or so years ago. Senge was a business consultant and author whose ideas about changing business models found some favour in the late Ninties and early Oughts, but in this address to senior district administrators and ministry personnel, he had some choice thoughts for the gathering.


He compared schools to industrial concerns in terms of both input and output. In many production facilities, there are strict controls over the material on which the process is based, and material that doesn’t meet spec doesn’t get into the chain of production. All else is rejected. This, of course, doesn’t work well in a system of universal education, in which society undertakes to educate everyone’s children as opposed to selecting only the brightest and the best, or the most compliant, or the strongest, fastest, most adept.

Along the chain of industrial production, an enterprise will control as many factors as possible in the run-up to output so as to minimize deviation from spec and guarantee consistency of product at the end of the process. This is difficult for schools, given that the level of parenting will vary considerably, the presence of constructive/destructive influences outside the school system will vary widely, and the school system has call on the clientèle for only part of the day. During the other part, students are bombarded with images and messages as an incitement to consume and often actively encouraged by influences in the wider community to refrain from any exercise for their intellect. Unless there is serious intervention by the family or another agency, it is easy for any real education to stop at the school room door (the converse can also be true, where the dead air can happen in the classroom and where the student avails himself of opportunities outside of class to engage his faculties and pursue constructive interests, a necessary phenomenon when curriculum and delivery are dumbed down and strictly controlled within the school system). Again, in the industrial framework, any unit that doesn’t measure up along the production chain is simply flushed out of the system and ceases to be part of the responsibility of the organization. This is more difficult in the case of schools where the utmost effort must be made to retain all students in some part of the educational framework, lest they become part of the remediation/incarceration network.

Measurement of outcomes is difficult for schools. In the immediate aftermath of  public schooling, there are measures of how quickly students enter the job market or post-secondary education (and, eventually, the job market), as well as success at exit exams. These exams measure only a very limited and often mischosen set of outcomes and in a way that often means little or nothing. In the current economic climate, employment statistics are likely not going to be very good because of a dearth of real employment, particularly the jobs worthy of a career and where an exiting student might perceive the ability to build a life on the work on offer.

In addition, there is a serious quandary (not in some minds, I’m sure) about who determines whether a teacher is successful, about which teachers would deserve to be rewarded with merit pay and which teachers should be working for reduced salary because of shortcomings. A great deal  of personal preference and the arbitrary would be difficult to avoid. Fairness and justice in the distribution of benefit doesn’t seem to be one of society’s strong points, and the same can be said for a lot of individuals who have risen to positions of authority for reasons other than simple and demonstrated competence.

Finally, there is the matter of pay. Teachers will generally have spent five or six years learning their craft at university at their own expense. They will then spend eight to twelve years climbing up the salary scale until they reach their maximum. I would say that, by all means, we should remove the “seniority” clause: pay teachers the top salary from Day One. Teachers who are not competent need to be flushed out of the system if they can’t, given the opportunity, develop a series of processes and strategies that will result in success as an educator. But let’s also do the same with doctors, dentists, lawyers, judges, politicians, nurses, burger flippers, insurance sales people and the rest of the folks who toil on behalf of the general population. Teachers should do more of their training in the actual schools and should be paid to do that work, much as we do with apprentices in the trades and should access real salaries as soon as they get a position following successful completion of their training.

It is unfortunate that society has become so much a reflection of its industrial/consumer underpinnings: as a society, we are becoming increasingly unfit to judge the appropriateness of our institutions and incapable of bring the change to the institutions (as well as the creation of new or repurposed institutions) that the same society needs to thrive in the future. In the process of rebuilding our processes of education, a good first step might be the reform of the press and the cheap-shot journalism that produces screeds  such as the article that set off this whole rant.