Jenn Binis joined us on episode 025 Factories and Cohesion to discuss how misrepresentations of education history contribute to institutional injustice.
Michael Ralph: So for our first segment we’re joined by Jenn Binis who is a former special education teacher and host of the podcast Ed history 101. She now supports teachers and districts with authentic assessment design and she’s published in the fields of special, gifted, and middle level education, and she has personal and professional opinions related to history, gender, and education. Thank you for joining us Jen.
Jenn Binis: My pleasure. I have no opinions on beer. I’m actually drinking a cider.
M.R.: One of your podcast episodes from Ed History 101 I found particularly compelling, the one titled, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” because you were describing some of the history of bells and how it was incompatible with some of the popular narratives for where bells came from and their purpose in the educational space. Can you tell us a little bit about about that topic that I know you discuss frequently with people in the education space?
J.B.: Sure. The topic, itself, is the notion of origin story. One of the things that we share as human beings is we appreciate origin stories. We like to hear, “Oh this is where this was invented,” or, “this is where this comes from.” It’s a human desire to want to understand the beginning of something. In the mid-eighty’s or so there was a particular gentleman who wrote a book which he called the “Underground History of American Education.” It spoke to a lot of people because he pulled together tidbits from history and put it together in a narrative and said, “Here’s your origin story.” He has gone on, he’s been cited probably dozens of times for that origin story, but the origin story is one of his inventions. The bell is one such example. It’s very common for people to believe that schools, high schools, work the way they do because they’re training children to work in factories, or they’re based on factories, and one of the data points they point to are the ringing of bells in schools. In fact, bells predate the American education system. They are a form of communication over distance with large groups. It makes sense. It feels plausible that, “Oh, high schools are like factories, therefore they come from factories,” when in fact it’s much more complicated.
M.R.: Yeah let’s do some of that. Laurence and I, we are not historians to the same degree of investment that you are and so we did a little bit of reading to try to prepare for this conversation. There’s a recent article that was published on Ed. Week called, “The Side Effects of Education: A History Lesson.” That author, Beth Holland, describes some of the recent events that have led us to where we are and sort of starts to call out some of that false history that gets discussed, but there is really an article that you share Jen that goes into greater detail on some of this misconception.
Laurence Woodruff: “The Factory Model of Education: The Invented History,”
L.W.: Audrey Waters.
M.R.: Your podcast does a beautiful job of laying out the actual history of bells and some of this organizational structure. One of the things that you went into on your show that I particularly love, the specific location escapes me now, but there was a school where they were saying we need to make different spaces so students can engage in different activities. We need a lab. We need a playground. We need these different places where they can do specialized stuff that you can’t do in a general classroom, but we don’t have enough space for everybody, so we’ll have bells to let students move between the spaces so they can do the different things they want to be doing, which sounds like a really reasonable thing to do, so students can self differentiate, and so we can serve everybody with limited resources, which is directly in competition with the prevailing narrative that you described.
J.B.: That’s a fantastic summary of it. I think one of the challenges is there’s a lot of anecdotes in that history. What you’re describing is a particular plan that came out of a school district in Michigan that was dealing with a massive influx of immigrants. They needed to figure out a way to move children at the same time. It is called the worth plan. It had a few different names but the superintendent’s name was Worth, who was a student of John Dewey. He was a progressive thinker and part of his plan, as you describe it, was to give students the opportunity to move through their day, and would use bells to indicate it was this period of the day had ended. It was time to transition. But at the same time, bells were used in New York City schools you know in the early 1900s as a way to let students know when it was time for lunch, time to come back, safety measures. There’s always going to be multiple overlapping anecdotes that happen at different times in different places across the country. There are very few things in education that have started here first, and only here. Only one or two exceptions come to mind, everything else is pretty much, it was here, and it was there, and then it was here, without those two places talking to each other.
L.W.: Yeah. About that narrative, one of the things that I was thinking about as I’m reading is like, how does this factory origin story become so prevalent. One of the reasons that one metaphorically the comparisons, you know, there are comparisons that can be made and so when you see that metaphor played out, your mind ressonates, like, “Oh, that’s a connection I identify. That’s a connection I identify. That’s a connection I identify. It feels like it fits.
M.R.: If we get the history wrong so that we can create the straw man that we can all rally against, then we overlook some of the mistakes that we’ve made in the past. You know that reference Dr. Zhaou, again which was come up on our show in the past, but they refereced some fairly recent policy decisions that have been made, even as recently, the sixties and seventies. If we say this was wrong 100 years ago then we don’t have to address some of the more recent mistakes but actually put us where we are now.
J.B.: That is kind of the idea. The factory model, the idea, the factory myth, kind of starts the narrative in the middle. If we truly want to go back to the origin story of the history of education in America, the very 1st document that says this is what you should do to children on this soil was a letter from the governor of London, I believe, to the governor of one of the Virginia colonies that said when you come across an Indigenous child, kidnap them and raise them up to be Christian. The very 1st document on American soil for education was how to, directions on how to destroy an Indigenous child’s spirit. The fact that we don’t talk about that, and we jump ahead 140 years to talk about the factory model. Whoo boy there’s a lot to unpack there.
M.R.: It seems to me sometimes a debunking is its own exciting notion. This popular belief is wrong and I get to be in the out group where I know the right story is sometimes exciting. Why do people resist considering or discussing the actual narratives from our historical past? Why do people not want to know the truth?
J.B.: I hear what you’re saying about the excitement of debunking, and I completely appreciate and I feel that. At the same time there’s also some tensions around gender and race. I’m white. I write about being a white woman in education. Paul and I talk about in our podcast. I am the stereotypical American teacher. I am an early forty’s white woman, went to college 50 miles from where I grew up. My first teaching job was within 80 miles of where I grew up. I’m her. Many times the people advocating the factory model, talking about the change, are men, mostly white mostly, whom are no longer teaching. So yes. There’s a part of this piece about wanting to debunk, but at the other time, it’s my passionate commitment to recentering the women in education. The factory model is a very masculine model. it’s very much based on this masculine notion of what school was supposed to be and what it’s about. The people who talk about it are mostly men. The idea, part of it is debunking. Part of the reason why people push back against me, and it’s virtually always men, when they say, “No, No, no, but really it’s OK because there is a bit of a factory model to it.” A part of it is them saying, I am extrapolating a bit, but a part of it is their frustration with me challenging their expertise. They are this man who has published these books. There’s a few men, I won’t name check, who have blocked me on Twitter, and I get it. I understand. I can be a little bit of a woodpecker, I think, when it comes to tapping at people’s doors around that. Like when Ted Tindersmith tells me, “Jennifer, schools are based on factories. Look at, study the history.” That’s about gender. That’s about power. That’s about who’s given authority in American education.
M.R.: Especially that comment of, “Look at the evidence. Go look at the research. Go look at the historical record.” That kind of aggressive, confrontational use of the literature is really toxic. It is a problem.
J.B.: It’s not an easy conversation to have.
L.W.: One of the things that I found as I was reading this, or I felt as I was reading this, is that in addition to all of these issues, if we look at the burgeoning school organizations and we say, “They were factory model. They are bad,” what we miss out are things that were done well. That we are now dismissing because they were part of this model with a bad factory history.
J.B.: The idea of the modern system,or Lancastrian system, is you have older children teaching younger children, which is a common thing that happened in the one room schoolhouse model. As a New Yorker, there are still seven, one-room schoolhouses in my state. We have about 730 school districts. Of those 730 school districts seven are technically one-room schoolhouses, where there are seniors in the same learning space as kindergartners. I think most of the actually go k-eight, then the students go out to different high schools. The idea is there have been moments throughout history where that model of older children helping younger children and children moving forward not based on their age but based on their understanding of the knowledge is what we see today is referred to as competency based education, which is now having a huge upsurge and in New England and various places across the country. What Audrey’s talking about in these particular examples is the philosophical idea that instead of moving children through the system based on time spent, it’s based on skills mastered. That’s part of what, the examples she describes, are part of that competency based model which we pushed away from in a while, went back to, and now are reconsidering.
M.R.: Tell me how I’m doing and contextualizing this. You recognize who you were and a few of your identities. I am a white male and I’m even going to school to be trained as an educational statistician, but the focus on competency and mastery as your mechanism for advancement in school seems to me to be directly opposed to some of the heavily quantitative focused standardized assessment efforts that were sort of pushed with the No Child Left Behind era kind of changes which seems to me, back to reinforcing some of that Schoolman notion of, “I come in. I know how to use this data, which inherently got this masculine focus to it, and so to reject these discussions of competency and Mastery, which are a little harder to evaluate, I’m going to be focused on data as the determinant factor, which is then protecting some of my male privilege.” Is that a reasonable consensus of some of this?
J.B.: Oh absolutely. What you’ve kind of articulated is one of the fascinating catch-22s. I will always make book recommendations. We tend to think of the standardized test as a recent phenomenon of No Child Left Behind. That particular article in “Ed. Week” does start the standardized testing push at No Child Left Behind. However, there’s a great book called “The Testing Moors In The Public Schools,” by William Reese, where there were practically teacher riots in Boston in the 1840s because the Schoolmen came in and said, “We need to standardized measure.” They created standardized tests in Boston in the 1840s. New York State has had a standardized test since 1853. This notion of, “This is something new,” but what you spoke about, the interplay of gender, is absolutely at play in a lot of what we see in schools. Teaching is a deeply female profession. It is very much pink collar. Seven out of ten teachers are women, mostly white. Seven out of ten school administrators are men, mostly white. There’s a phenomenon called the glass escalator and it’s the idea that men in education are more likely to move up into positions of leadership. If you are the only elementary teacher in a male elementary teacher in a school building and your principal is also a man, the two of you are going to find each other. You’re going to hang out. If you are the only two men in the school, you kind of make that connection. There is that tension of oftentimes starting the timer in history in recent events when it’s actually much longer, and we oftentimes dance around the gender conversation when I think there’s a lot to be gained by talking about it directly.
M.R.: Where should we be pushing to address this kind of problem? It feels like they’re sort of several major threads all bound up in it. I think part of it has to be negotiating that tension between the science of the art of teaching. One of my favorite anecdotes, I think I learned it from Audrey Waters, is that the multiple choice item, the actual creation of the multiple choice item, which came out of, I believe the University of Iowa, was based on the supposition that female teachers were too emotional when scoring, so we needed an objective measure. When we talk about kind of where to go from here in terms of the gender challenges, it’s acknowledging that teaching is both a science and an art. It’s teaching teachers about things like inter rater reliability. Which serves a similar function to a standardized, crombax-Alpha, and all that stuff, but it taps into more teachers professional expertise, and less about, so it’s more about teachers’ judgement and less about the judgment of a statistical formula.
L.W.: One of the things we discuss about this at my school is the illusion of objectivity. It is that you don’t actually achieve objectivity through those practices, but it allows you to feel like you are objective and so then you can move on, as in, “OK, I’m no longer on the hook for any of this because these numbers are depersonalizing external to me and this is what happened. Now we go on to the next thing,” As opposed to when you’re looking at the work and you have to make a call, and you have to acknowledge, this student doesn’t have it or this student does, and you have to personalize what they are communicating, what the kids are communicating.
J.B.: There’s a second part of that sentence, it’s, “This student isn’t making it, and here’s how I know.” or, “Here’s the evidence I see in their work.” It’s me articulating. I believe the student needs more support and here’s why, and here’s what I’m going to do, as opposed to, “Well, the data say this and so therefore, which depersonalizes it.
M.R.: The biases and the mistakes that we make in the item creation and some of the violated assumptions that are along the way as we create some of those statistical descriptors are sufficiently opaque that even if at some level I’m aware that this is not an appropriate description of a student’s progress, it’s obscured enough from the view of others that it just isn’t like, “Oh look, the student’s from historically disadvantaged subgroups are again disadvantaged in my classroom, but I don’t know how that happened so it’s probably not my fault, which lets you off the hook versus you, as you say, here is how I know why this is wrong. We’re going to make mistakes. I’m going to get it wrong sometimes and then I have to be accountable for that, versus when a mistake is sort of hidden in amongst that pile of algorithms, it’s much harder to point a finger at any individual place.
J.B.: To complicate it even further because, the average American teacher is a 40 something white woman, and we were a generation of women raised not to see race, which means in the majority of cases, our perceptions of students are influenced by a childhood being taught it’s not polite to talk about race, it’s not polite to talk about these sort of things. It’s never, you know, it’s not the idea that working towards this objectivity is bad, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that the subjectivity of an individual teacher is going to be dramatically skewed by her or his or their background experiences related to race, related to gender, related to class and so it’s a constant battle between a quest for a deeper understanding of subjectivity while challenging the things that make everything so subjective.
M.R.: That brings us back to the differences in the composition of the various levels of education where our student body has one particular composition, racial, and gender identities, versus the teachers don’t often, at least in my experience, and in our regions, don’t often match that same composition. Then the administration has a different look entirely as well. When you have different biases, associated with those different identities and some biases have the power to insist that their perspective is the right one, or is the more important one, then you disadvantage any movement between those different levels, which then just perpetuates more of the status quo.
L.W.: To go back to some of the things we were referring to here. One of the things that really stood out as I was preparing for this today was from the. The Ed. Week article, The Colbert Report, which I don’t know anything about until I read this, in 1966 asserted that yes there is a performance achievement gap that is real, so we knew that in 1966 and then only 10 percent of the achievement gap is associated with demographic factors, and the rest of it is associated with environmental and societal circumstances outside of the school.
J.B.: One thing to keep in mind is that in 1966, it was still utterly legal for any school district in this and America to turn away a child with a disability. In 1966 if a parent attempted to enroll a child who presented as having a disability, be it a physical disability, Down’s Syndrome some sort of cognitive delay, will a school district could legally say, “I’m sorry, we can’t serve you.” In 1966 our understanding of who is allowed to be in American schools wasn’t yet where it was going to be after 1975, with the passage of what is now I.D.E.A. the education. Individual Disabilities Education Act. The Coleman report is kind of mired within a particular framework of this idea of a gap. People sometimes ask me if it’s not the factory model what is it? I will offer it’s a model of white supremacy and institutional sexism. When we talk about this achievement gap, part of the notion of the achievement gap is based on this idea of a goal, is to get children of color to a place where white children are. A gap you know it’s a space between where you are and where you appear to be. In part of that, I would offer, is linked to this notion of white supremacy. The goal is white kids are good, let’s bring kids of color to where white kids are. If they flip it on its head and say, if you look at schools, my classic example is outside of Detroit, there is a school that has a rock climbing wall an indoor olympic sized swimming pool, kids take A.P.,I.B.,there are more than enough guidance counselors, kids get access to a hot lunch and cold lunch, sometimes they have open campus, they can leave, they can go, there are no metal detectors, there are no security guards. Six miles away there is a school where garbage cans are regularly put the hallway because the ceiling leaks, children have to bring in toilet paper from home, bathroom stalls don’t always have doors because the school made the decision it was unsafe to have stall doors in the bathrooms, children rarely get A.P., they get no I.B, there is no swimming pool, there is no rock climbing wall. Part of the challenge is we will talk about these this gap without kind of negotiating the attention that what we’re trying to do is while we’re trying to close that gap we are giving white children and suburban districts every benefit after every benefit and taking benefits away from kids of color, especially kids who live in high poverty areas. It’s this constant battle and so part of what I hope we do when we talk about history is we start to say let’s bring an end to this constant evolution of white parents hoarding privilege for their children. Moving to the suburbs and setting up school district boundaries that deliberately avoid housing projects. Part of the Coleman report is authored by people who saw the goal as being Let’s bring black kids up to where white kids are. What I’d offer is we want to kind of set aside that model and say it’s not about bringing them up it’s about equity of opportunity. It’s about making sure every child has every single possible advantage while they’re in school as opposed to disadvantage.
M.R.: Jenn, we appreciate you taking the time to join us. If somebody wants to read more of what you’ve written or consume more of the information that you provide out there, where can they follow you or where they can they find the things that you do.
J.B.: Probably the best place is on Twitter. My personal handle is @jennbinis. I also have a website where I have my blog and links to different things, which is just jennbbinis.com. Then you can read all the stuff I’ve done on “Ask Historians.” You can read my book recommendations, it’s different posts and various writings related to gender, history, and education.