What It Is That We’re Up Against: Market Speak

Again, and always, its important that our language as educators accurately reflect our purpose, and that we think deeply and clearly about what our purpose is. Into the void of our lack of awareness and intention, the market will creep. All of education is in the process of being reduced to economic ends, and we see the damage of this all around us.

Why get a college degree?  “I want a good job.”

Market speak.

Why reduce teacher pensions? “Efficiency.” (This word, by the way, represents an abstract fill in the blank answer for virtually anything. What it means in practice, no one really knows.)

Market speak.

Why teach to standards? “College readiness.” And why be ready for college? “To get a good job.”

Market speak.

What does our president have to say? “America’s prosperity has always rested on how well we educate our children – but never more so than today. This is true for our workers, when a college graduate earns over 60 percent more in a lifetime than a high school graduate.  This is true for our businesses, when according to one study; six in ten say they simply can’t find qualified people to fill open positions.”

The purpose of education reduced to American Prosperity.

Market speak.

So when you hear the language of business creep across its borders into the context of education, which was formerly treated as a common good and therefore public, know that the market is reducing you and the students you work with to capital with a price on it. And, because it limits our humanity to its market value, know that it is dehumanizing. So either directly address it, or run like hell.

Is education to be “run like a business”? Nope. Should any head of any so-called educational institution be given the title of a CEO? Not. Should any of our superintendents be trained by a foundation that has as its tag line, “Entrepreneurship for the public good…” Hell no.

This creep of the market into everything, called neoliberalism, is reshaping all before our very eyes- our institutions, our language, our way of relating to each other, and it is crucial to understand the ways, mostly difficult to detect, that it functions.

Importantly, this reduction of all to the market, this neoliberalism, makes the mistake of confusing economic health with democratic health. It makes the mistake of confusing the market, (that is, profit) with the political (that is, a commonly determined purpose). It makes the mistake of making democracy disappear. Democracy has no market value. Or worse. Authentic democracy can be very bad for the market.

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains this very well:

“More than merely saturating the meaning or content of democracy with market values, neoliberalism assaults the principles, practice, cultures, subjects, and institutions of democracy understood as rule by the people…

The claim that neoliberalism is profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy in any form is premised on an understanding of neoliberalism as something other than  a set of economic policies, an ideology, or resetting of the relation between state and economy. Rather, as a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith’s creature propelled by the natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange,’ today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive position and with enhance its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all its endeavors and venues. These are also the mandates, and hence the orientations, contouring the projects of neoliberalized states, large corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, schools, consultancies, museums, countries, scholars, performers, public agencies, students, websites, athletes, sports teams, graduate programs, health providers, banks and global legal and financial institutions.” (Emphasis added)

Yes, it can be difficult to see, difficult to hear, but you will catch it in seemingly innocuous phrases, and sometimes you can catch it in your own thinking.

Why are evaluations now “competitive” with the erasure of tenure?

Market speak.

Why are inundated with “Value Added Measurements”?

Market speak.

Why do we need standards? (Again, see Obama quote above.)

Market speak.

This is what we’re up against.

(For an interview with Brown, see here.)

Accountability and the Erasure of Democracy

We hear a lot about the need for “accountability” in education, but I’m not sure anyone knows what this word means in practice, or what an authentic means of being accountable might look like.  If this word is going to be thrown around so much, then it’s time for those throwing it to think deeply about how it functions.

And in thinking deeply about the role of accountability in education, we need to recognize the increasing, and mostly unconscious creep of economic utilitarianism beyond the bounds of economics and into all aspects of life. Essentially, this spread is represented by the ideology of market fundamentalism, which says that all value is reduced to the single value of economics. That is, all is commodified, has a price, and can thus be measured in terms of its efficiency, which is translated into its ability to reduce costs, to add monetary value as the ultimate value that can then be measured as profit.  As an example of this, see this recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which fundamentally uses the ideology of the free market to ask the question, ““Is a College Degree a Lost Cause These Days?” Within the article as part of its set up, the author quotes President Obama, and develops from there.

“Even President Barack Obama has poked fun at the humanities, observing in a 2014 speech that ‘folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’

Obama later insisted his ‘glib’ comment wasn’t meant to throw shade on liberal arts majors. But it reflected an emerging consensus that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to provide many students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-Century workplace.”

The underlying assumption of this thinking is that the purpose of a college degree is reduced to its value on the market, its ability to translate into a job for the holder of the degree, and its ability to propel the economy.  I don’t want to go too far into a richer vision of college of higher education here, other than to note the hidden assumptions of this kind of language. (And to be fair,thankfully the author of the article does go on to, at least,  gently critique these assumptions, first of all within the parameters of economic utilitarianism, and then by suggesting, almost as an afterthought, that education may have an impact on a democratic citizenry.)

The language of accountability is language which unconsciously and uncritically propels these assumptions. And because it does so in a way that is unconscious, it serves to continue to hide these assumptions.  It presents the world of economic utilitarianism as an unquestioned given.

And it is well past time to question.

conditionsecosystem for market fundamentalism

Thankfully, in Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Saved?, Gert Biesta has done a lot of this questioning and should be trusted as a guide. (See the link below to the full article.)

Biesta starts with a paragraph that shows that the current mode of accountability has reconfigured the relationship between the state and its citizens from a political relationship to an economic relationship, that is, “..state as provider and the taxpayer as consumer of public services.”

This seems subtle, but nonetheless, this shift is crucial to understand.  A political relationship is one where citizens work together in a mutual relationship. A consumer relationship, one determined by economics, is one in which a consumer is recipient of services, and therefore to be served in ways that are measurable so that consumer choices can be made clear.  It thus becomes necessary for the provider of those services (the state in the case of education) to quantify its services in order to provide information to the consumer so that proper choices can be made.  A political relationship, on the other hand, is one that suggests accountability and responsibility are mutual.  A teacher has accountability in this relationship to a context of mutual relationships- the students, the parents, the community and the ways that the community is served by the education of its members. In an economic relationship, the consumer is a passive recipient, and one imagined as outside of the bounds of community. The single consumer is to be served, and the values of this service are inherently economic values. That is, the consumer is a recipient of the state’s services, one with the need for “choice of” state services, and whose “vote” and democratic responsibility is reduced to his/her choices. The implication is that as a recipient of services, the consumer is not engaged as a member of the state, and determines the values of these services within the context of the value of how he/she will economically benefit from these services.  The connection between the consumer and the broader community is obscured, and the value of the education to the broader community is wiped clean. Along with this, because of the importance of the availability of consumer information in a market of choice, the value of an education must be quantifiable. As a result, the “accountability” of education to its consumers is reduced to the single, but easily measurable, dimension of test scores. Why do students want to “do well” in school? In order to receive the grades and test results to that will allow them into a “good” college so that they can earn a marketable degree.

Pure economics.

Pure individualism.

Biesta writes, “Crucially, the language used is an economic language that positions the government as provider and the citizen as consumer. Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behavior of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs; it should not be conflated with democracy which is about public deliberation and contestation regarding the common good.”

It is important to recognize that in this shift from citizen to consumer is the fact that the purpose of education is completely obscured and uncontested. There is little room, if any, for the conversation of outcome. Why should someone be educated? In ways does the broader context of relationships benefit, not just the relationship between consumer and the state, but the relationships of a community? These questions disappear because outcomes are assumed and the focus thus becomes on the process of acquiring these easily quantifiable outcomes of economic value.

Biesta again: “To put this point differently, according to the logic of the market, the relationship between the state and its citizens is no longer a substantial relationship but has turned into a strictly  formal relationship. This reconfiguration is closely connected to the rise of the culture of quality assurance, the corollary of accountability….Quality assurance is about efficiency and effectiveness of the process itself, not about what the process is supposed to bring about. In this light, it is easy to see why the …government’s constant emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is ultimately vacuous: it lacks proper (democratic) discussion regarding which standards or ‘outcomes’ are most desirable. The same problem underlies much of the research of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement industry.’ These studies mainly focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, without addressing the far more difficult normative and political question regard what these process ought to bring about.” (Emphasis added)

So we have a situation where consumer “choice” is “driving the market” of education. At the same time, this current shift allows no place for the most important question of purpose. There is no discussion of what we hope to bring about with an education, and, because of the unquestioned assumptions and constraints driven by an “accountability” system which can only measure efficiency and limits the purpose of education to the attainment of test scores, we have created an education that has as its purpose the creation of consumers.

Is this what we want?

And just as importantly, is democracy being lost as a result?

Biesta suggests that democracy is being lost. (And the evidence of current zeitgeist would certainly do the same.)

“The role of parents and students in the ‘accountability loop’ is indirect: they can ultimately hold the government accountable for the ‘quality’ of the public services it delivers. But this relationship is itself apolitical in that it positions citizens as consumers who can ‘vote’ about the quality of the services delivered by the government but who do not have democratic say in the overall direction of content of what is being delivered (if delivery is an appropriate concept in the first place).” (Emphasis added)

So there is input through “choice’ that parents have in the processes of education, and the efficiency and quality of these processes. (However, I would go further in saying that the processes of education, that is the pedagogy, is also obscured when the information used to determine such choices is reduced to the dimension of easily quantifiable test scores.) Importantly, though, what is lost in the shift from citizen to consumers, is the choice of purpose, what is the direction we want to education to go? For what purpose do we want our children to be educated? This question is no longer available for contestation.

“The core problem is that while many would want the culture of accountability to emphasize accountability to the public, it actually creates a system focused on accountability to the regulators and the like, thereby removing the real stakeholders from the accountability loop.’ In this respect, the current technical-managerial approach to accountability actually produces economic relationships between people and makes democratic relationships difficult if not impossible to establish.”

What does this look like? What’s the end game of the language of accountability? It creates a system that conflates economics and democracy, and, in doing so, privileges economics at the expense of democracy. It allows democracy to be sacrificed to the god of “economic efficiency” with the allowance of little to no contestation of such shifts. It allows, for instance, the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education to be completely marginalized and replaced by an Emergency Manager. In a very real way, the voice of the people is eliminated and replaced with the voice of consumers and profiteers who are alienated from the context of political community.

According to an analysis featured by Diane Ravitch, this is ultimately what this shift to accountability looks like in Detroit:

“While falling enrollment is often cited as a reason for “right-sizing” the district, the loss of students is the inevitable outcome of starving the schools of funding and relentless attacks on teachers’ jobs and conditions by the Democratic-run city. In the past three years alone, the district cut over a half billion dollars in operating costs, including increasing health care premiums, cutting per-student funding, freezing pay steps for teachers and closing schools. This is not enough, however, and Snyder and his Democratic Party accomplices aim to fully convert the new district into a system of charter schools, which remain outside of public oversight and are a lucrative source of income for politically connected business hucksters.”

Unless we all quickly take responsibility for democratic spaces that are disappearing under the illusion of accountability, this will also be what your local school district looks like.

Please take the time to read all of Biesta’s piece here:


For a richer alternative view of the purpose of higher education, see William Dereshiewicz’s Excellent Sheep.

Photo from here

Investment Opportunities for Ed Reform “Experts”

Search no further than this article, “Ed Reform Experts Descend on Detroit,” to find the root issue with the so-called “ed reform” movement.

Who are these so-called educational “experts” pointed to in the headline? (And why do business leaders get the title of “expert,” while actual educational scholars are marginalized?) Upon just a little bit of research, it turns out their background is not in education, it is, surprise, in business.

Michael Petrelli is the CEO of The Fordham Institute, a right-wing, pro-charter think tank.  His background is business, not education.

Eric Chan is, as he describes himself in the article, “an investor.” He runs charter investment growth fund and has an MBA from Harvard. No educational background other than seeing education as a means of making money.

Why are these business leaders called educational “experts” in one of Michigan’s most prominent newspapers?

Actual educational expert and scholar Paul Thomas explains it this way:  “…politicians with little or no educational expertise or experience control education policy and journalists with little or no educational expertise or experience report on both the claims made by those politicians and the education reports coming from think tanks and advocacy groups posing as scholars.”

So why are Petrelli and Chan described as experts? Because they say so. And their think tanks and  businesses say so. And, rather than critiquing or researching or questioning, the Detroit News accepts, prints and publicizes. There is no mention of the ideology of the institutions Petrelli and Chan represent. There is no mention of their backgrounds, or their own ideology.  They are just accepted as “experts.”

What does this look  like in print?

“Both experts say that Detroit has done well opening the door to charter growth, but not on pairing that growth with excellence.”

So the assumption is that opening the door to charter growth is unequivocally a good thing.

Enter Chan.

“Chan’s non-profit group funds the top charter management organizations in the country, and he’d like to get involved in Detroit.”

Now, why does Chan so much want to get involved in Detroit? It seems, in spite of the status of his institution as a non-profit, he is actually an investor running an “growth fund” that looks for opportunity to create profit.  (See this, for instance, on the Rocketship Management company Chan’s fund supports.)

As he says, “As an investor, I’m optimistic…I sense you’re heading in the right direction.”

Can’t our media do better than this?

It All Turns on Affection

I continue to wonder, why do we attempt to impose technocratic solutions on contexts such as education that require the nexus of human relationships? To be more specific, why do use a market driven model of corporate education reform imposed from the top that uses data abstracted from context? It’s kind of like arguing for a first down in the game of basketball. 

One of my heroes is the philosopher/poet/novelist/farmer Wendell Berry, who thinks about this issue in relation to land use, but his thinking goes beyond simple categorization. In his important lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Berry writes of the importance of affection. “I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it…By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy.” 

There is so much in that one paragraph, but, importantly, note that affection is a value that is necessary in an economy that is humane and connected to place. It is an emotion that both recognizes the value and importance of relationship, and of particular, concrete relationships in particular, concrete places. 

This is what is missing from any technocratic solution imposed from above. This is the root reason the education reform movement is bound to fail. (And, as the evidence shows, has been failing for years.) The ed reform movement is looking for a first down in the game of basketball.  It has abstracted numbers and data from contexts to such a degree that those contexts have become irrelevant to them. While reality (and Wendell Berry) shows that when relationships matter, all is context. The quality of relationships that actual teachers have with actual children actually matters, as immeasurable as that may be. The context of the lives of these children, their class, their race, their backgrounds, their families, these things matter. And when the lives of these actual, living concrete people are abstracted into data for the sake of comparison, affection for them and their concrete living are necessarily erased. 


In writing of the James B. Duke, whose relationship as an industrialist to tobacco and power can be rightly compared to corporatist Bill Gates’ relationship to education, Berry says, “The failure of imagination that divided the Duke monopoly and such farmers as my grandfather seems by now to be taken for granted. James B. Duke controlled remotely the economies of thousands of farm families. A hundred years later, ‘remote control’  is an unquestioned fact, the realization of a technological ideal, and we have remote entertainment and remote war {and remote educational policy}. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of imagined life. We may, as we say, ‘know’ statistical sums, but we cannot imagine them. “ (Emphasis added) 

So true- such knowing of statistical sums is remote, and, just as importantly, “it isolates us in our remoteness.”  It wipes away the context of our place, of our schools, of the relationships we have in these schools, and reduces “knowing” to the sums this data accrues, without being able to imagine the people and lives affected. The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood that to the ‘globe.’ When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all…Propriety of scale in all human undertakings is paramount, and we ignore it. We are now betting our lives on quantities that far exceed all our powers of comprehension. We believe that we have built a perhaps limitless comprehension into computers and other machines, but our minds remain as limited as ever. Our trust that machines can manipulate to humane effect quantities that are unintelligible and unimaginable to humans is incorrigibly strange.” (Emphasis added) 

The hard fact of the matter is that this corporatist reform movement and the market fundamentalism that drives it will run their course. And then we will be left with all that we’ve ever had from the beginning; each other and what’s left of the land that we depend on. The more we practice affection in the meantime, the better prepared we will be. Against the technocratic assault of the abstraction of “this limitlessness,” as Berry puts it, “…we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane.”

Photo from article at National Endowment for the Humanities linked above.

The Education Revolution will Not Be Standardized: The “Moral Imperative” of Testing Refusal

Originally posted on educationalchemy:

Let me start by suggesting something key that has not been articulated widely enough: All standardized testing is high stakes testing. If there were no stakes involved, why would corporate reformers and testing companies lobby tooth and nail to ensure standardized tests remain a central cornerstone of all education policies? At stake are billions of dollars for testing and data mining companies. The collection, ownership, and (mis)use of private student data is at stake. The future of students who are denied meaningful quality education in lieu of skill-drill and kill instruction is at stake. The use of testing data to assume the “value” of children according to race, culture, language and class is at stake.

And even if the standardized tests (in a reduced role returned to state level decision-making as Alexander and Murray seem to promise) are not used to evaluate teachers, retain students, or close schools, it is, and…

View original 1,506 more words

Front-Loading Change: Why Scott Walker Is So Wrong (Or Maybe Right?)

Most of you reading this are by now probably very aware of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s predictable crusade to deprofessionalize teaching.  Walker offers a long line of proposals in Wisconsin, replicated elsewhere,  that are designed to further the decimation of public education.

The question for today, is how did we get here?  How did we get to this cyclical pattern of, as Noam Chomsky points out, defunding, then blaming, then privatizing, then starting all over? And, assuming we actually care about the lives of children, what is the alternative?

In this excerpt,“Education Reformers Have It All Wrong: Accountability From Above Never, Works, Great Teaching Always Does,” from his forthcoming book, Jal Mehta unravels this important history and points a way forward.

Mehta starts by showing us the history of “rationalism” and its effect on education. It’s important to understand how the roots of the current top-down accountability systems have been deeply engrained in the American imagination. Rationalism was a movement that originated with the ideas of what was known as “Taylorism.”  In their book, Dancing on the Edge, O’Hara and Leceister show how Taylorism “enshrined itself as a cultural norm.”

“It has brought huge improvements in efficiency, productivity and the effective management of ever more complex processes.  But what is less obvious is the particular view of personhood that Taylor’s theory and its 21st-century descendants have enshrined as the cultural norm.  This is the behaviorist view, inherited from the Enlightenment:  that human beings are in essence no more than autonomous agents motivated to act in predictable ways by prompts which provoke responses aimed at predetermined outcomes. ..This logic has driven industrial age thinking since the 18th century and accepts implicitly a simple and direct relationship between causes and effects even in the complex lives of persons, groups and communities.  Administer the right prompt and you will get the desired response.

Human beings can thus be managed through the careful application of efficient design coupled with appropriate rewards and punishments.  The role of leadership and management is to design efficient systems, monitor outcomes and reward success.  In essence this view suggests that what we need are smart systems to compensate for dumb humans.  It is not a mindset likely to foster the development of persons of tomorrow.” (pgs. 50-51. Emphasis added)

Mehta explains how this way of thinking transformed the historical American schooling model of the one room school-house into the system we have today.

“The story starts in the Progressive Era (1890–1920), when an educational crisis was identified by a group of muckraking journalists, who used the power of the press to expose what they saw as a corrupt, nepotistic, and highly inefficient patchwork of schooling. This crisis was seized upon by a group of “administrative progressives”; using the newly ascendant ideas of Taylorism, they sought to develop a system of efficient, rationally governed schools. At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable and derive the most bang for their buck. Then, as now, teachers charged that such movements were wrongly applying the logic of industry to schools and argued that education had a deeper “bottom line” than could be measured through actuarial techniques. Ultimately, however, they were overwhelmed by the administrative progressives, who were able to tap into political allies from both parties as well as the legitimacy bestowed by industry. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic “one best system” of city administration that still persists today. Universities were a major supporter of this effort, as newly formed departments and schools of education, seeking to establish their scientific bona fides, embraced scientific management in the training of (primarily male) superintendents and distanced themselves from the pedagogical training of the (primarily female) teaching force.”

There is so much here to write about, but note the historical pattern of a crisis artificially created to allow for what we now term “disruptive innovation” which puts control in the hands of those who created and reinforced cultural and economic norms, doing so from a place of spatial and imaginary distance from where the real work occurred.

The next big step was to link educational concerns to economic concerns.

“Developments in the 1960s and 1970s brought schools under fire, but the driving force behind the modern standards and accountability movement was the linking of educational to economic concerns in the 1980s. The impetus this time was the famous A Nation at Risk report, which framed the educational problem in dire economic terms and launched an avalanche of state-level efforts at reform. Again, these reforms were popular on both the political left and right: the left saw in standards a way to create greater uniformity across the school system; the right saw in accountability a way to impose greater pressure on an unresponsive public bureaucracy. With education cast as an economic development issue, state legislators and governors became involved in an arena that had previously been left primarily to local schools and school boards.”

Previously education in America was much more aligned with what we now consider to be a “liberal arts” approach.  That is, education was about exposure to great ideas and great works as a means of expanding and developing the self and society. However, the accountability movement functioned to reduce education to being first and foremost an economic consideration, which synchronized nicely with American market fundamentalist values that consider all through the single lens of economic utilitarianism.  As David Blacker points out in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, “Predictably, those who live by the sword of economic utility die by it too; if economic outlays are to be justified on the basis of their economic utility, when the utility is gone, so is the purpose.” If education is justified through the single lens of economic utility, then if a given education system can be shown to be “failing,” why fund it? At the root of our issues with the protection of public education is this acceptance, passive and often unconscious, of the purpose of education as primarily economic.

The “…reform movements share certain features of organizational rationalization. In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control, hallmarks of the rationalizing process. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators. Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their bidding. Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data-driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes. Across the decades, the essence of the rationalizing vision has remained remarkably unchanged.”

So this pattern of rationalization is now firmly entrenched.  This has created what Mehta calls, “The allure of order.”

He points out 3 recurring themes.

1. “The… outsized faith that Americans have placed in the tools of scientific management as a mechanism for improving schools.” Mehta shows how this has been bolstered by connecting education to “higher” categories of social life, namely business and defense.  And he correctly shows that an important limitation of scientific management is its offering of answers that don’t address the contextual demands of distributive justice.

2. “…the inability of the educational profession to take control of its sphere, creating a long-standing susceptibility to these external movements for reform.”  Mehta argues that teaching originated as a “semi-profession,” and I would argue that his previous allusion to how gender power differentials have functioned historically within education goes far in explaining this.  He also describes teachers as historically being at “the bottom of implementation chains.” In other words, teachers worked within a hierarchical system of accountability that disempowered them.

3. “…the double-edged nature of movements to impose scientific rationality on schooling.”  So yes, there is no question that scientific rationalism works very well in imposing order and efficiency.  However, this comes at a very real cost. “As Weber famously noted, rationalization creates order out of chaos, but it does so at the cost of creating an ‘iron cage’ that often emphasizes the measurable to the exclusion of the meaningful.”

Seeing these historical themes at work today is easy. And though Walker’s latest foray into education is predictable given this historical pattern, there is absolutely no evidence that it will work to produce outcomes that will benefit children.

Mehta does see the attraction of scientific rationalism given the current American context of race of class. “Within  this context, “crises” of schooling are inevitable; critics need only point out the very real variation in outcomes or the gaps between what schools are producing and what we wish them to achieve. Policymakers, in turn, quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy. They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports. Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution.”

However, Mehta doesn’t stop there.  He moves forward by showing the very real limitations of this approach.

“Improving teaching and learning requires the development of skill and expertise; simply increasing expectations does little to bring about results. Teachers, meanwhile, perceiving policymakers to be remote from the realities of their schools, are highly resistant to efforts to control them from afar. Realizing this, policymakers seek to increase the pressure and tighten a loosely coupled system, a response that only increases distrust. A downward spiral between policymakers and frontline practitioners is the result. Particularly where students are most unable to reach the targets, teaching to the test becomes the norm, and a reform initially advanced in the name of improving educational quality can drive practice toward the most anti-intellectual and least academic of ends.”

Thank you Jal Mehta.

So what? If we don’t move forward with scientific rationalism, what is our alternative?

Mehta has some excellent suggestions, but, unfortunately, he polarizes the main figures involved without considering the quality of their arguments. Mehta places Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein one side of his spectrum, and Diane Ravitch on the other. And though they are clearly different in their approach, he unfairly criticizes Ravitch by saying she has not been honest about the “failings” of public education.  Thus he makes the same mistake he earlier accuses scientific rationalism of; not considering the broader societal context of distributive justice. Public education, in my mind, and Ravitch’s, is certainly not perfect, and much can be changed.  However, Ravitch and others have rightly argued that public education takes place within a broader context that has great impact on its function. And when we analyze the data used by Rhee and others to show schools as “failing”, we find that data to be faulty as a measurement of learning, and accurate as a measure of social privilege. It is either disingenuous of Mehta to ignore this, or an unfortunate short cut on his part.

With that said, Mehta continues on to make excellent suggestions regarding the improvement of our children’s education. He argues that we have put the whole system together backwards, and instead need to “front-load” the way we develop schools and teaching.

“To overstate only slightly, one might say that the overarching lesson is that the entire  educational sector was put together backwards. The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge; we send many of them to schools afflicted by high levels of poverty and segregation; and when they don’t deliver the results we seek, we increase external pressure and accountability, hoping that we can do on the back end what we failed to create on the front end.”

His criticism of teacher rankles greatly.  I know many, many highly talented teachers who have found excellent training for themselves. Nonetheless, considering the way we value and pay teachers these days, who would want to go into this career? How do we fund the continued development of teachers? How many now go into classrooms with manageable numbers of students?

Scott Walker’s answer is to cut and punish after the fact. Mehta offers a much better idea. Value and develop on the front end. He points out that those countries who are seen to have the most successful education systems, “…draw teachers from among their most talented people, prepare them extensively and with close attention to practice, put them in schools buffered from some of the effects of poverty by social welfare supports, and give them time while in school to collaborate to develop and improve their skills. In some cases, as in Finland, such practices largely obviate the need for testing and external accountability, because selection and preparation on the front end makes extensive monitoring on the back end unnecessary. While the United States remains the world leader in assessments and accountability, Finland and Shanghai are the leaders in student performance, and they get there in an entirely different way.”

So I see and experience daily the harm of our legacy and current dependence on scientific rationalism. And I have always seen the vision of valuing and investment in teacher development.

I’m just not sure how to move from Walker’s surreal ascendancy to Finland’s reality.

Then again, Mehta’s argument rests on the assumption that we want education to benefit children. If this assumption is true, then Walker is wrong.

But maybe Walker is working under different assumptions, the assumptions of neoliberalism that his behavior belies. David Blacker reveals what might be Walker’s real intentions.

“It should now be clear to everyone that neoliberal education policy is not about reforming public schools. It is about obliterating any remaining vestiges of the public square via a market discipline that is officially supposed to apply to everyone but in reality is selectively applied only to those lacking sufficient wealth to commandeer state policy.”

Such is the real context we are working within.

Children and Literacy Be Damned

Education Trust, and its Midwest component, is at it again.  This Gates backed foundation just released a report pointing out that “the trajectory” of Michigan’s education system has Michigan headed to a state ranking of 44th in the country in 4th grade reading by 2030.  In an article on this report, the Detroit News fails to write where the state of Michigan is in the year 2015, but I guess that is much less newsworthy, though it would (at least seemingly accurately) show our present condition.

However, to do so would be to undermine the true purpose of these reports.

The fact of the matter is that these reports put out by Education Trust are not meant to be accurate representations of the current state of education. They are meant to raise alarms and to paint our schools as failing.  

But, before going there, let’s take a closer look at this supposed reading issue. In “Beware Grade Level Reading”and the Cult of Proficiency,” Paul Thomas points out that standardized testing necessarily limits what we mean by “reading.” Thus, the “data” that Midwest Education Trust uses for its report has already bastardized the real life experience and purposes of actual reading.

“…advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas…While all this seems quite scientific and manageable, I must call hokum—the sort of technocratic hokum that daily ruins children as readers, under-prepares children as literate and autonomous humans, and further erodes literacy as mostly testable literacy.”

And Thomas raises the necessary question too often unasked in the use of such faulty data:

Who benefits from the use of such data?

We get some hints when we look at Education Midwest’s call for “accountability.” The report reads, “If we’re going to hold our students accountable for reading by third grade, the state must hold adults accountable for doing everything they can to get them there. Leading states like Tennessee and Massachusetts have shown that a key to real reform is ensuring that teachers and principals are held accountable for their students’ academic success. This means creating an accountability and assessment system that can accurately measure student performance and growth in reading and giving schools the support – and accountability – they need to raise levels of reading performance.”

“Systems of accountability” means “systems” that are tied to high-stakes testing. And, as Thomas has pointed out, “accurate” in this case leaves much latitude. These simply represent more of the same failed policies (see the response to these in the current opt-out revolution) that necessarily remove teacher voice and professionalism from the process.

As Thomas puts it, “This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.”  That’s what is meant by “accountability,” surveillance and control.

This surveillance and control is necessary whenever change is being implemented from the top down.  And top down change just doesn’t work, for a variety of reasons, but most importantly here because the voices of actual educators, people like Phd. and reading expert Paul Thomas, are not included in the change. Actual educators who actually are professionals are ignored while those who speak for corporate interests are heard.

In her expose of Education Trust and its founder, Katy Haycock, Mercedes Schneider writes,

“She (Haycock) has become ‘the system.’ Given her continued push for top-down, test-driven pressure on states to ‘prove’ a papier-mache form of ‘equality of opportunity’ via ever-elusive, gap-closing test scores, it seems that Haycock is unaware of her role in perpetrating a failing system.

Test score worship cannot create equality of opportunity. It can only sabotage.

In that 1990 article, Haycock asks this question:

How do you design a wonderful, model curriculum and make sure all schools implement it?

The problem is with the question. The idea of ‘making’ schools implement curriculum designed by some ‘you’ is top-down.

Change absent ‘bottom-up’ investment is not genuine change and will never succeed for that reason.”

So here we have Education Trust Midwest pushing the same old, top-down, “achievement data,””accountability” system that has been tried and has failed, failed absolutely. It continues to push an agenda at the expense of children, for the benefit of corporate profit.  Education Midwest triumphs Florida as a state leading this accountability effort.  How is this working, and who does it benefit there?  In Florida, according to a telling new article, Corporate Interests Pay to Play to Shape Education Policy, Reap Profits“:

“FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50% of the state’s school accountability measure. FEE staffer Patricia Levesque wrote to a state official that she had negotiated the related language with state legislators, who were now ‘asking for the following which, the Foundation completely supports: FCAT shall be ‘at least 50%, but no more than 60%’ of a high school’s grade.’ Pearson, the company that holds the $250 million FCAT contract and sponsors FEE through its foundation, has an obvious financial stake in ensuring that FCAT continues to be at the center of Florida’s education system.” (Emphasis added)

Read the whole article, it’s important in showing who profits from these “systems of accountability.”

Again, we know the formula. Decry schools as failing, defund them, then privatize them. As Noam Chomsky puts it in regards to the commons,

“… if you can defund it, it won’t be in good shape. And there is a standard technique of privatization, namely defund what you want to privatize. Like when Thatcher wanted to defund the railroads, first thing to do is defund them, then they don’t work and people get angry and they want a change. You say okay, privatize them and then they get worse. In that case the government had to step in and rescue it.

That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

So public education funding continues to decline, and now we need evidence, as faulty as it may be, that education is failing. Thank you Education Trust. With this formula firmly established, all continues to ripen for profit.

Actual evidence is irrelevant.

Thomas makes this clear.

“Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.

The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.”

The Detroit News opinion on this report ends with these disheartening lines.

“Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder have begun some of this work, but the education establishment is still wasting time fighting over essential and inevitable reforms. Michigan is in an education free-fall, and cannot afford further delays in fixing its schools.”

I guess I am just wasting time in asking that people consider education from the perspective of evidence that is actually related to learning rather than falsity of the privilege that comes wrapped in the language of “achievement.”

I guess that corporate interests will rule, children and literacy be damned.