Dick and Jane Meet Scientific Man: An Analysis of Reading Management Systems

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Dick and Jane Meet Scientific Man: An Analysis of Reading Management Systems

by Doug Boucher

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 18–21

Most of us remember relatively little about learning to read. It involved little books with a pretty picture and a few short words on each page. For some of us, there was a lot of rhyming of words, like “hat-cat-fat”; only many years later did we learn that this was called “phonics.” Some of us found it pretty traumatic, while others breezed through. But one way or another we learned, and the details of how we learned have mostly faded from memory. I remember “Run, Spot, run” and “See the ball”; but other than that—well, I was very young at the time. 

In recent years, some of us have begun to be concerned again about that process, and not merely as elementary school teachers or parents. First of all, we have realized that more was being taught than just reading. A feminist political analysis can point out the role of those pretty little books in giving us our ideas of gender roles—of how Mommy and Daddy, Dick and Jane are supposed to behave. And those innocuous little phrases included such concepts as “Some people can learn a lot. Some people can only learn a little.”1 We were being taught, unknowingly and perhaps even unintentionally, to accept the basic differences in social status that characterize modern capitalist society. 

Traditional teaching materials portray sex-role and class stereotypes characteristic of capitalism. The new technique of scientific management to teach reading offers a more blatant example of how teaching methods reinforce the status quo: the use of this prescribed and inflexible method limits teachers’ creativity in the classroom, communicates to parents and students that the Doug Boucher is Associate Professor of Biology at McGill University in Quebec; one of his main interests is tropical agricultural research. 18 responsibility to learn, and to learn in this one way, lies entirely on the student, and legitimizes itself through a scientific rationale. This article outlines these abuses of scientific management and centers on its violation of the teacher’s role. 

Taylorized Teaching 

But the influence of capitalist thought on Dick, Jane and Spot goes beyond the question of what is taught. It also has a great deal to do with how reading is taught. This becomes particularly clear when we look at the recent introduction into the classroom of techniques first developed in industry around the turn of the century. The little red schoolhouse does not have assembly lines and factory whistles, at least not yet: but more and more it is becoming another experiment in scientific management. 

Scientific management, also called Taylorism after its most famous exponent, Frederick Taylor, is generally associated with time-and-motion studies. One breaks up the productive process into the basic motions a worker has to perform, calculates the minimum amount of time needed for these motions, and then forces the worker to do the job in the most “efficient” way. However, scientific management’s importance in capitalist development goes well beyond these charges. As analyzed by Harry Braverman in the book Labor and Monopoly Capital,2 scientific management was the harnessing of science by capitalism, for the purpose of taking all control of production away from workers. Jobs that involved expertise and knowledge on the part of workers were subdivided into parts or mechanized, so that skill was no longer necessary. Quantification and standardization ensured that all work would be done in the same way and at predictable rates; thus raw material needs and output of products could be carefully controlled. No longer would skilled workers have the power that comes from having knowledge and talents that the factory owners couldn’t do without. Rather, the subdivision of the productive process would both make it possible to replace skilled labor with unskilled, and guarantee that only the top managers would have the knowledge necessary to understand the complete process of production. 

Braverman shows how the principles of scientific management, having completely transformed industry, are also being introduced into “white-collar” jobs such as typing. The point is not that scientific management is simply a more “efficient” or “productive” way of organizing work (although of course it generally is, if one accepts capitalism’s way of defining efficiency and productivity), but rather that it is a way of organizing work that is adapted to the needs of capitalist production. Thus it can be employed in the control of workers and the “manufacture” of essentially anything that is considered useful in our society – cars and corn flakes, laundered shirts and letters, blueprints and bombs. 

Or, children who can read. While the raw materials are somewhat variable, and the workers tend to interact with them a bit personally, these give no reason to think that science can’t reorganize things in the same way that it did in the steel mill. And in fact, the companies that make reading materials have gone well beyond an improved “See Jane run.” They have developed entire “management systems” for teaching reading, complete with textbooks for all elementary grades, pre-tests and post-tests, fill-in-the-blank workbooks, teacher’s guides, test manuals, and supplementary reading. But more than just printed matter, they are selling a way of November/ December 1979 Steve Karian/Red Apple Art organizing the teaching process. As a computer programmer might put it, they are selling schools the software for learning to read. 

The reasons schools are buying, and the implications for teachers and students, are demonstrated in a recent set of articles on the Ann Arbor, Michigan schools reading program, written by Kathy Hulik in the Ann Arbor News.3 Ann Arbor, a fairly wealthy university town with a school system which is considered forward-looking and innovative, recently bought “management systems” from four major publishers. (Ginn, Holt, Houghton-Mifflin and Laidlaw), at a cost of over $85,000. The systems will be implemented fully in September 1979, and while teachers can choose which of the four to use, they must use essentially the whole system “package” for the one they choose. About 8,000 pupils in grades one through six will be learning reading through the management systems. 

Scientific Management and the “Art” of Teaching 

Hulik’s articles indicate that both teachers who favor the management systems and those who oppose them, agree in their analyses of why the school district is using them. Thomas Pietras, the district director of language arts, explains that “The management system is basically record keeping.” The textbooks are divided up into units, each teaching a certain “skill,” and tests before and after each unit indicate when a student has learned a certain skill and can go on to the next unit. Beyond simply reading the books (in groups of students, all at the same skill “mastery” level), the students spend their time filling in blanks in workbooks which are similar to the tests. The workbooks and of course the tests are graded by the teacher, and provide a quantitative measure of exactly how many “reading skills” the child has learned. One management system, for example, is advertised as containing 450 distinct skills. 

Some teachers question whether many of these “skills” are in fact valuable in learning to read. For instance, one of Houghton-Mifflin’s workbooks asks the student to pick out the nonsense phrase that ryhmes exactly with an underlined word in a sentence. Thus, given the sentence “We made the candy with instant fudge mix,” one should know that the proper rhyme for “instant” is “win stunt” rather than “inch ant” or “fan stand.” But irrespective of the value of each particular exercise, it is clear that the basic purpose of scientific management remains. Rather than allowing teachers to teach in their own individual ways, the management system divides the process up into its smaller component parts, and deals with them one at a time. Teaching is standardized. As one proponent of the system puts it, “Reading is no longer taught according to an individual teacher’s preferences.” Another teacher who favors the system says that “there is a systematic section of each day a teacher can plug into.” This is considered to be particularly useful to young teachers, as yet unskilled in teaching reading. 

The Significance of Standardization 

Even more important than standardizing teaching is making it quantifiable. The tests and workbooks both indicate skills an incoming student has mastered and provide something to show parents and administrators to indicate progress. One advocate of the method says that “When discussing a child’s performance with his parents, the parents don’t want the teacher’s subjective judgments, but objective facts.” Another explains that “There is security in knowing the children have been exposed to all the skills, that the basic components of a good reading program are being attended to.” 

It is revealing that the claim for the management system is not so much that it quantifies learning (which, after all, has been measured by tests long before management systems were thought of), as that it quantifies teaching. Whether or not the child has learned the skills, one has the evidence of workbooks filled in and tests 20 taken. If Johnny still can’t read, well, we’ve done the teaching; he just wasn’t able to do the learning. As Pietras argues in favor of the system, “We can show parents a child’s capabilities. And we are trying to guarantee a certain amount of instruction to parents.” This is stated more critically by a teacher who opposes the system: “The management system is a neat package for public relations. It is something to show parents, the superintendent and the community. It is designed to show that the teachers are teaching, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is learning.” 

Clearly, the basic purpose for such systems is to meet the growing demands for “accountability.” School districts, increasingly under fire for the supposed declining quality of graduating students, can use the system as evidence that they’ve been doing their job and aren’t to blame. Rather than either challenging the value of indicators of “product quality” such as SAT scores, or implementing proven but costly means of improving education such as smaller class sizes, the schools opt for a way to demonstrate “objectively” (i.e., with numbers) that the students have been taught. If they’re not all literate—well, we learned way back in second grade that “Some people can only learn a little.” 

Another effect of implementing scientific management, however, is to make teachers less like “professionals” and more like other workers. As one teacher objects, “this system is stopping teachers from thinking. You can’t give them a total package deal and expect creativity.” Another says, “All I studied and taught and learned in 28 years of experience is not held in great repute. My input as a professional is not thought of as important. It all has been replaced by the management system.” While administrators such as Pietras deny the systems stifle creativity, their attitudes do seem to share something of a manager’s outlook: “The exercises could be considered drill-oriented and tedious, but the process is necessary. It serves to make the teachers accountable for their teaching. Scoring tests and recording grades are part of the job. They have to be done, we want them done, and they are in the best interest of both child and teacher.” 

Scientific management seems to be bringing the same kind of organization of production to the classroom as it does to industry. Quantification, standardization, and, in general, control of the productive process (e.g. learning to read) reduces students to machines being run by Taylorized methods instead of teachers. Students form habits and expectations encountered in the workplace, and Taylorized literacy can eventually help generate profits. Publishing companies can make considerably more money than just selling textbooks by pressuring administrators to buy complete management systems. The capitalists win big while student and teacher lose. 

The result for teachers is, to quote the subtitle of Braverman’s book, “The degradation of work.” The personal, creative aspects of teaching, which originally attracted us to it, are replaced by the grading of posttests. Our warmth and love of children, our accumulated experiences and talents become less important than the requirements of the management system. We become alienated from our jobs; as with industrial workers before us, we become “proletarianized.” 

Thus it should be clear that the major objection to scientific management is not that it applies science to education, nor that it doesn’t really teach people to read. The point is that the way it uses science to teach reading is destructive to the creative aspects of this work. Students become fillers-in of blanks, and teachers become grading machines. 

Is there an alternative? Perhaps an applicable one is presented by the work of Paulo Freire on teaching November/ December 1979 adults to read, as described in his books Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education for Critical Consciousness, and Pedagogy in Process: Letters to Guinea-Bissau. For Freire, learning to read is merely part of a process of “conscientization,” of coming to deal critically with one’s world in order to change it. Reading is taught not through an authoritarian teacher-student relationship, but through dialogue that leads to a shared description and analysis of one’s surroundings. The effect of the process is to overcome rather than to increase alienation. 

The challenge is to incorporate science into such experiments in education in a new way—one that serves the needs of teachers and students rather than of managers and publishing companies. By discovering how the development of science has, in this as in so many other fields, been conditioned by the structure of capitalist society, we can perhaps find a way to both a new science and a new education.

Doug Boucher is Associate Professor of Biology at McGill University in Quebec; one of his main interests is tropical agricultural research. 

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  1. Senesh, Lawrence, Our Working World (1972). Quoted in Richard Lewontin, “Biological determinism as a social weapon” in Ann Arbor SftP, eds., Biology as a Social Weapon (Minneapolis, MN: Burgess, 1977).
  2. Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
  3. Hulik, Kathy, “The New Reading” in Ann Arbor News, 4 February 1979, p. F-1.