In our modern manufacturing system, each task associated with creating a product is broken into separate cells, and each cell is engineered to minimize the human effort needed. Each cell is timed, and workers are penalized if they exceed their allotted timing. Some production lines have alarms, buzzers or loud music that skips when the cell goes overtime to cue the worker to speed up. The goal is to reduce the cost of human labor involved in creating a product – and, of course, enhance the profitability.
This system doesn’t care how the product feels as it moves through the line – so long as it doesn’t become so damaged that it can’t be sold. It doesn’t care how boring, repetitive or physically demanding the task is to the workers – as long as costs are kept low. It is singularly focused on reducing costs to the business owner to maximize profit. It does that, and that alone, extremely well. This system is called “lean manufacturing” because any and every extra penny of resources that can be taken from the process in order to increase profitability is removed or minimized.
In Wake County recently, speakers repeatedly asked the Board of County Commissioners to approve the full budget requested by the school district. A final comment from an article about the meeting stated that some speakers asked the commissioners to “look for waste in the school system.”
Anyone who has been in a public school recently knows they are down to the bare minimum. Signs in the bathroom limit how much soap or paper towels you can use. Bare-bones administrative staff manage all the support needs of an entire school. Class sizes are constantly growing. Teachers pay for “extras” like glue, crayons, disinfectant, paper, tissues and napkins out of pocket – or ask parents to bring them in. Books are worn or non-existent. School nurses visit a day (or less) per week. Occupational therapists, speech therapists – a few times a month. Enrichment teachers split their schedules among multiple schools. PTAs raise funds for basic needs like books for the library.
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Reading the statement about “looking for waste” in the schools gave me chills. It reminded me of work I did for years, negotiating pricing with suppliers and managing deliveries to keep the supply chain humming as an employee of a major automotive and logistics company. It hit me that our public education system is being evaluated using the criteria of a lean manufacturing system.
Childen aren’t commodities
If we are looking at the public schools as a lean production system, in which we minimize waste and maximize output, then who are the products? Our children.
By squeezing every last nickel and dime from school budgets and investing in ever more cumbersome and high-stakes standards to measure our educational “output,” we are treating our children like products and our schools like assembly lines
But children aren’t commodities. They are human beings. Unique, brilliant, complicated, independent and requiring support and love to grow into their full potential. In order for a school to meet the needs of the children in it, it must have the ability to adapt to meeting each of those needs.
That takes resources. You cannot improve education by dedicating yourself to resource reduction. This isn’t efficiency. It is starvation.
Our current N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory have led the way in treating our children like products. They have stripped our public schools of resources, demeaned teachers and undermined the profession, and plunged us into a critical teacher shortage. Under the guise of “choice,” they have opened up the floodgates to vouchers and charter schools that offer no track record for educational improvement and no financial accountability for tax dollars used to fund what are often for-profit ventures.
Today, some of the same educators who spoke out at the Wake County commissioners meeting will be marching to the state Capitol to demand more for our schools. If you believe this system is wrong and that our children deserve more, I hope you’ll join them.
Valerie Warren of Greensboro is an organizer with Organize 2020 Social Justice Caucus of the N.C. Association of Educators.
If you go
What: The Students Deserve More March
When: 2 p.m. today, followed by a rally at 4 p.m.
Where: State Legislative Building, 16 W Jones St., Raleigh