Changing Classes: Postfordism and Quality Control in a Michigan School District

Martin Packer
Duquesne University

Presented in session 9.43,

Changing Schools, Changing Children:

School as a Site of Cultural Production

AERA, Seattle, April 2001.

"Our schools are failing. Do we care?"

"Our schools are failing. Do we care?" The words are those of Louis Gerstner Jr., in 1994 the new chairman of IBM, writing an impassioned op-ed piece for the New York Times. His voice was just one among many, calling loudly for reform of U.S. public schools. "It is a deeply dangerous situation," Gerstner wrote. "We cannot transform business and the economy without a labor force that is prepared to solve problems and compete on a global level.... We need a national strategy for resurgence that reaches every school in the country... If public education does not reinvent itself to meet these goals, and fast, it is the entire country that will be out of business."

Strong words. But not unusual ones, either then or now. Bill Clinton, with the aid of his secretary of education Richard Riley, was preparing a "national umbrella" for school reform, presumably in case it rained while we were crossing his "bridge to the 21st century." The "goals" Gerstner wrote of were Clintonís "Goals 2000," a reworking of Bush 41ís National Education Goals, which in turn had been proposed by a bipartisan task force of the National Governors Association, led by then-Governor Bill Clinton.

And there remains today a surprising bipartisan consensus among those in power, at both federal and state levels, that U.S. public schooling requires increased accountability, and that this means in particular rigorous testing--the "high stakes testing weíre hearing so much about.

In this paper I want to share with you two--no, actually three--three contrasting discourses about school reform. The first is what has become the dominant national refrain: standardized "high-stakes" testing, accountability, efficiency, "all children can learn." The second is the discourse of systemic reform, less audible now. And the third is a discourse of local reform which I bring to you from the trenches, from a small, working-class, ethically-mixed community in the rust belt. I shall argue that these three discourses constitute and occupy very different realities, but that since the first is so much more powerful than the second and third, holding most of the cards, its reality is trumping the others. The local reformers grasped the ways schooling--teaching and learning--is relational and cultural. The accountability reforms completely fail to grasp this--but they are having profound impacts on the classroom nonetheless.

Reforms in Michigan

Michigan is one of the states where accountability reform has been put into place, and I was there when it began. The local economy was rocky. Weíve recently experienced an extraordinary bull economy, and itís hard to remember that Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 by reminding himself "Itís the economy, stupid!" That year the United States was in a recession described as the worst since the Great Depression of the 30s. Many businesses were struggling, and the Michigan-based auto manufacturers were in real trouble.

The U.S. economy was being transformed, a structural upheaval in which "fordist," standardized production has been replaced by "postfordist," flexible production. In the 1970s Japanese auto makers began to challenge the Big Three--Chrysler, Ford and General Motors--with imports created with techniques of "smart production." The U.S. automakers have struggled since then to become more efficient and profitable, rationalizing design and manufacturing, outsourcing parts, downsizing, relocating production. All of these strategies to increase productivity and improve quality played a part in GMís decision to close its auto-assembly plant in Willow Run.

A group calling itself "Michigan Future Inc." published a call for action:

"The emerging New Economy demands employees who can solve problems with fellow employees without being told what to do by a supervisor or foreman. It demands employees who can keep learning new skills and master sophisticated technologies. The new economy requires very different schools and ways of learning." And along the same lines the new Republican Governor of Michigan, John Engler, announced in his 1992 State of the State address, "Tonight, Iíve got a message for the Japanese Speaker of the House of Representatives. Our cars are second to none. Our autoworkers are second to none. Michigan is second to none. Something else that has to be second to none is the education of our children. We canít compete for jobs unless our kids have the skills to fill them.... Ladies and gentlemen, I am not satisfied with the state of our schools. And I know youíre not, either. Thatís why initiatives like the Michigan Education Warranty are so important. It is time our schools stood behind their students the way we expect our automakers to stand behind their cars" [1/21/1992, State of the State Address] The Willow Run Community Schools

But the school district Iíd begun to visit didnít have to be told that something needed to change. Willow Run is a small rust-belt community in southeast Michigan. Itís largely working class, and about 40% African American, 60% Caucasian, with just eight schools. Total enrollment is around 4,000. And itís a poor community: across the district around 46% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The community was stunned when General Motors announced the closing of the Willow Run plant. The banner headlines in local and Detroit newspapers could be expected, but the front-page coverage in the New York Times suggested that something deeply symbolic was happening.

Indeed, this community grew up around the plant when it was built during World War 2 by the Ford Motor Company, for the first assembly-line production of a bomber, the B-24 Liberator--a huge facility. One commentator said, "Willow Run was where Henry Ford promised to build a better bomber, to build it cheaper and to build it once an hour." And the author of a book for the local school children declared, "Willow Run...? Willow Run is America!"

The Local Reforms

The community was stunned by the plant closing, but in the schools significant reforms were already underway. In order to understand these changes--and try to facilitate them--I joined the committee that had been charged with encouraging reform throughout the district, as their "official observer." I came to see the local reforms as an important experiment at making schooling newly relevant to the lives of children of working-class families (cf. Packer, 2001; Packer, in press).

A new superintendent was boosting morale and improving facilities. The middle school was working on shedding its tough image.

The elementary schools introduced hands-on, student-centered pedagogy that caught the attention of children born into a culture that valued manual labor and practical reasoning. The emphasis on practical activity with concrete products made sense to both children and parents.

But the local reforms were more than attempts to find academic tasks that would appeal to kids who saw knowledge as practical. Teachers and administrators recognized that they had to do more than teach new skills. They had to change childrenís attitude to learning. They had to touch not only studentsí cognition but their motivation, even their personality.

The teachers knew that many families in Willow Run were on or over the edge of poverty. Their children had low expectations, poor self-esteem, and came to school each day tired and hungry. Their parents had often tasted failure in school, or simply dropped out to work at the plant.

The task for reformers was the difficult one of preparing these children for a new life-style, a new way of life, as their old one vanished. If the community was to survive, this could be done only by transforming its children. The local reforms were a search--grounded in necessity as much as idealism--for a new mode of schooling which would no longer alienate these children.

One central aspect of this was a change in the way students were assessed and evaluated in the classroom. The new pedagogy, the "hands-on, minds-on" learning, was coupled with moves away from the traditional classroomís single axis of evaluation (Parsons, 1959). Experiments with portfolio assessment, acknowledgement of different learning styles, celebration of childrenís diverse interests, main-streaming, elimination of tracking and ability grouping, were all moves in this direction.

The unitary axis of achievement began to be replaced with the understanding that children learn in different ways, at different speeds. The aim was to change the culture of the classroom.

And the culture of the school, including the relationship between teachers and administrators. To avoid "top-down" decisions about pedagogy and curriculum, and instead to foster a climate in which staff and administration were equal partners, trying new approaches and taking risks together. There was to be no "one best way" to schooling. Everyone would be learning, together.

State Accountability Reforms

Meanwhile, governor Engler announced his plans to "turbocharge" Michiganís economy and transform its schools. In July 1993 the state House and Senate voted to eliminate all property tax funding of public schools--to explain why and how they did that would take another hour--and the governor strode into the resulting chaos with his "quality reform initiatives." The public was offered a choice between two funding proposals: in a referendum they accepted the Governorís plan to finance schools by raising the sales tax, and they also got (with much less fanfare) significant changes in the school code.

The broad picture will be familiar to you by now: Charter schools, a more "focussed" core curriculum, a longer school year, and so on... and of course tests: in this case the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test--the MEAP test.

"Quality, performance, accountability" said Engler to a special joint session of the legislature?"these will be the prized attributes of successful schools, because parents will be looking to do what is right by their children. The total funding level of schools will be determined by how many students they can retain or attract. The schools that deliver will succeed. The schools that donít will not. No longer will there be a monopoly of mediocrity in this state. No longer will there be exclusive franchises over education. No longer will there be a company store holding our families hostage. Because our kids deserve better!"

Governor Engler: Special Message to a Joint Session, October 5, 1993.

I want to draw your attention to the metaphor that is at work in this accountability reform initiative.
  Schooling as a Production Process  
  "Quality Reforms"
  • Improve the product 

  • measure its quality

  • enhance performance 

  • increase efficiency

  • introduce accountability

  • create competition 

  • eliminate monopoly

  • satisfy customers



    System of Survival?


    economic metaphor

    In the governorís so-called "quality reforms" schooling is understood to be a process of production, with the high school graduate its product. The aim was to improve the quality of this product. To do this, it is crucial to measure the product--and this of course is where tests come in. Then it is also necessary to enhance the performance of those doing the production (teachers and administrators), and to increase their efficiency. To do this, accountability must be introduced: people must be held accountable for their work. And competition must be created: we all know that when there is a monopoly there is no incentive to maintain quality. And the overall goal is to satisfy the customer--though weíre told variously, and confusingly, that the customer is the student, the family, or potential employees.

    In this logic a standardized test is essential, because it provides a crucial index of quality. It provides feedback to consumers. It is the measure not just of students, but of teachers, schools, even districts. It is the score in terms of which schools compete. Test scores are a measure of "output" that can be placed against the money and resources, and the raw material, that are "input" to the schooling process. Testing, on this logic, is essential if we are to obtain more efficient production by public education.

    State Systemic Initiative

    At the very same time Michigan became a participant in the National Science Foundationís "Statewide Systemic Initiative." This was another large-scale school reform program, along lines originally proposed by Marshall Smith and Jennifer OíDay (cf. Smith & OíDay, 1990; OíDay & Smith, 1993).

    I donít have time to go into detail about SSI, but again I want to note the organizing metaphor. Where Englerís market-place reforms rested on an economic metaphor, systemic reform adopted a political metaphor. What I mean by that is that schooling is viewed as a public service, as a system that distributes or delivers learning to students, its public. It is an element of social infrastructure--like the post office, or the highway system.
      Schooling as a Delivery System
      "State Systemic Initiative"
  • improve delivery

  • equal opportunity

  • increase capacity

  • improve coherence

  • align components 

  • flexible coupling

  • serve clients



    System of Survival?


    political metaphor

    Once you buy that, it follows that reform should seek to improve the equity of this delivery.

    When schooling is viewed as a delivery system rather than a production process, the imperatives are different. The aim here is equal delivery for all: every child should receive the "higher order thinking skills" that the educational system can deliver. This requires increasing the systemís capacity, so it can deliver adequately. And its coherence and coordination must be improved: thatís to say, the components of the delivery system must be aligned, so that the flow of goods can be smooth--like getting water pipes lined up in the basement, or making sure the mail truck meets the plane on time and so gets the packages to the delivery person. Furthermore, national and state agencies must be coupled, and the coupling must be flexible, so the flow of goods is unimpeded. All of this to better serve the clients of the system: thatís to say, students understood as citizens.

    Now at first glance it might seem that these metaphors are trivial, irrelevant to the reforms or their outcomes. On the contrary, I would argue that it is crucial that we attend to them, for three reasons.

    First, these metaphors betray their two very different sources: they are the two great "systems of survival" that Jane Jacobs has described, in her book of that title (Jacobs, 1992). Commerce and guardianship: the two spheres of every society. This observation begs an important question: to which sphere does schooling belong? Is schooling a business or a public good? And it suggests a danger: Jacobs warns that when the two systems merge a "monstrous hybrid" is created. We shouldnít mix our metaphors of schooling. Each metaphor embodies a coherent logic, but together they are largely incompatible, clashing rationalities, one emphasizing competition and efficiency, the other coherence and equality. I suspect this is why we now hear so little about systemic reform; it has been swallowed up by accountability reforms. While there is apparent convergence in the goals of these reform initiatives, their conceptions of how to achieve these goals differ radically, and there just isnít room for both.

    Second, the metaphors draw our attention to the fact that these reform initiatives seek to rationalize schooling; an important point, but something I donít really have time to go into.

    Third, when we look closely at these metaphors we see that neither of them says anything about the actual process, the praxis, of teaching and learning. The classroom remains an unopened box. What is the "production" that goes on in school? What does it mean to say that knowledge is "delivered"? The metaphors stand in for teaching and learning, leaving these central questions unasked, let along answered. So in a very real sense the school reforms based on these metaphors know nothing about schooling.

    Workplace 2000

    The consequence of this is that it becomes an important empirical matter to see the impact the large scale reforms have on local practices of teaching and learning. I can tell you that in Michigan, the MEAP test became the overriding consideration: it was the measure of both student achievement and school performance, it was now the basis for school accreditation. Test scores became a reason for the state to seize control of "failing" schools. And the test drove curriculum, because although no specific content was mandated by the state, the test items were linked to specific materials which schools had better teach if their kids were not to fail. A county administrator told me:

    "This sure feels like a mandate, but thereís nothing I can do with it, thereís no way I can change it, I canít protest it. If you [have] a mandate, thereís usually a process that you can impact it. You canít impact this kind of system! Theyíll still be messing with you, but itís not official so therefore you canít do anything with it. You canít even tell people that itís happening, because itís not official." (Interview with county administrator, May 1997) There was an appearance of local control and choice, but in actuality every local decision was being driven by this single measure of "quality".

    The school board, disappointed by the districtís low test scores, threatened to fire principals, and made plans to hold teachers individually accountable for their studentsí scores. A climate of fear and anxiety began to build, splintering the culture the local reformers had been working to create. The Board Chair said:

    "Iím not threatening anybody. Iím just telling people to do their job. You canít come back here year after year with the same scores. There are no excuses. In private industry, if you have results like this, you wouldnít have a job." (Miller, 1997) And in particular the way the test was scored drew attack from many districts, both rich and poor. The category cut-points--defining students as "proficient," "novice," or "not yet novice"--were seen as arbitrary or, worse, as designed to fail kids, because the test was intended to "pull instruction." The director of the Michigan Principals Association pointed out that "If 96 percent of students were scoring proficient on this [test], it would be considered a failure." The single axis of achievement was being reintroduced, with a vengeance. A district administrator said to me: "Everything that I have seen indicates to me that thereís every intention of creating--and theyíre doing a darn good job--of increasing the distance between the haves and the have nots. They absolutely do not want to see what they consider to be kids in the underclass succeed." (Interview with district administrator, May 1997) Conclusions

    Thereís much more I could tell you, but let me wrap up. The typical story weíve been told about U.S. public schools is that the new economy has introduced a "workplace 2000" that requires advanced problem-solving and communication skills. Students must be taught these "higher-order" competencies, and this means that schools must reform both curriculum and pedagogy. But that story is incomplete. The economy is certainly changing, but as well as new kinds of work there is a new social contract, as workers are forced to adopt a new way of life, to abandon the stable, relatively affluent lifestyle of the "blue-collar middle class." And this means that preparing students for the workforce requires that they adopt attitudes to work and learning different from those of their parents.

    What kind of attitude? Postfordism no longer exploits the division between blue-collar and white-collar work; it exploits the distinction between a small inner core and a large outer-core. The inner core have secure employment; the outer core are part-time and temporary workers. From both, "flexibility" is demanded. What better way to legitimate this than by convincing young people that they lack the ability to demand anything better?

    The Story about Postfordism:

    economy: altered division of labor
      + altered social contract
    worker: new problem-solving and communication skills
      + a new way of life
    student higher-order skills
      + different attitudes to knowledge and learning;

    different motivation and personality structures

    classroom: new curriculum and pedagogy
      + "ontological work" 

    changed relation between teacher and students;

    changed culture in the classroom

    The metaphor of schooling as a production process has a tangible impact on the lives of teachers and students. Tests like the MEAP become metrics that make what they measure, that create what they sort. They impose a particular form of recognition, as putative measures of "quality," and reimpose the axis of achievement that labels children "haves" or "have nots." And who and what a child becomes now depends increasingly not only on their face-to-face relationship with teachers but also on an abstract rationality of efficiency and quality, operating through complex networks that now mediate the student-teacher relationship. The needs of large-scale industry can come to define who children are, through the actions of a state governor and his legislature (cf. Packer & Goicoechea, 2000). Or the actions of an education president. I think we need to help the teachers and administrators who are fighting this metaphor, who know that happens inside the classroom, and who know the damage this kind of testing can cause.


    Jacobs, J. (1992). Systems of survival: A dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics. New York: Random House.

    Packer, M. J. (2001). Changing classes: School reform and the new economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Packer, M. (In press). Changing classes: Shifting the trajectory of development in school. In M. Packer & M. B. Tappan (Eds.), Cultural and critical perspectives on human development . Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Packer, M. J., & Goicoechea, J. (2000). Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: Ontology, not just epistemology. Educational Psychologist, 35(4), 227-241.

    Parsons, T. (1959). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. Harvard Educational Review, 29(4), 297-318.

    O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (1993). Systemic reform and educational opportunity. In S. H. Fuhrman (Ed.), Designing coherent educational policy: Improving the system (pp. 250-312). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Smith, M. S., & O'Day, J. (1990). Systemic school reform. In S. H. Fuhrman & B. Malen (Eds.), The politics of curriculum and testing: The 1990 yearbook of the Politics of Education Association (pp. 233-267). London: Falmer.