Our Schools Are Not Widget-Makers

Last May, only a week or so after I testified  in opposition to our proficiency-based diploma mandate, my fourth grade colleagues and I took our students on a field trip to visit our state capitol.

Our first stop was the state house, which was bustling with activity, as we had arrived just before a legislative session was about to begin.

During a whirlwind tour of the Senate chamber, my students and I found ourselves longing to do what we knew we shouldn’t:  the kids, or at least a few of them, wanted very much to try pushing the “yes” and “no” voting buttons; meanwhile, I had to hold my hands behind my back to keep from snatching up the newsletters that had been placed before each legislator’s chair.

Placed squarely in front of each seat was a copy of “Impact” – the newsletter put out by the Maine Chamber of Commerce – with the following headline at the top of the page:

“Maine State Chamber Urges Education committee to Stay the Course on Proficiency-Based education: Maine’s workforce development needs are too critical.”

And then, only a few lines in, was the following quote:

“Business is, after all, the number one consumer of our public education system.”


Consumers?  Of public education?  Did that mean that the curious kiddos that I was leading through the senate chambers were products that we were developing – for business?

The mentality fits squarely with proficiency (also known as competency) based education, which argues that students should work at their own pace and be given as many tries as necessary before they have demonstrated the requisite competencies and attitudes to be considered an output of sufficient value.

It also echoes comments made by Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon Mobile, found in this article in Fortune and written about brilliantly here by Peter Greene:

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer…What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

And this, of course – in addition to the profits to be made through its implementation and all the digitalization and data collection it demands – is why “personalized” and competency-based learning has long been popular among members of the business community: it treats students – children – as products that can be managed like any other resource.

“We’re taking the play out,” said Superintendent Thomas Guines back in 1977 about a competency-based pilot program conducted in Washington D.C. “We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

A predictable product, that is.

It’s also why the system being implemented in my local district by the Gates and Nellie Mae-funded Reinventing Schools Coalition is based on experiments conducted in rural Alaskan districts where the theory of Total Quality Management – originally developed in the automotive industry – was applied to schools.  TQM is at the heart of our data and outcome-obsessed education policies.

Keeping in mind the quotes above, read Wikipedia’s definition of total quality management:

Organization-wide efforts to install and make permanent a climate in which an organization continuously improves its ability to deliver high-quality products and services to customers.

and now try this: substitute the word “organization” with the word “school,” “products and services” with the words “human capital”,” and “customers” with the word “business”:

School-wide efforts to install and make permanent a climate in which a school continuously improves its ability to deliver high-quality human capital to business.

And this, of course, is what the Maine Chamber of Commerce, the Exxon CEO,  and most of our legislators seem to believe is the purpose of our public schools.

Peter Greene expertly describes this viewpoint below:

“Tillerson’s view is anti-education, anti-American, anti-human. It’s a reminder that the education debates are not about Left versus Right or GOP versus Dems. The education debates are about the interests of the human beings who are citizens of a nation and stakeholders in its public institutions versus the interests of a those who believe their power and money entitle them to stripmine an entire nation in order to gather more power and money for themselves. The education debates are about democracy versus oligarchy. The education debates are about valuing the voices of all citizens versus giving voice only to the special few Who Really Matter.”

This is so much of what this battle is all about, and why – despite a year of one ambush after another – we have no choice but to say onward and upwards.


Our schools are not your widget-makers.






Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

5 thoughts on “Our Schools Are Not Widget-Makers”

  1. Seems like behaviorism meets neoliberalism as a theory of education. Inhumanity sux and it sure not a good philosophy of pedagogy. Please keep kicking them because you are on the side of the angles. The Chamber of Commerce are fools and are their own worst enemy.


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