YOU'LL NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH:
SCHOOLING AND SOCIAL CONTROL
by Dave Stratman
(from New Democracy, Sept.-Oct. 1998)
A couple months ago these sample questions from the new MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), given to all Massachusetts students in grades 4, 8, and 10, appeared in the Boston Globe:
MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with a flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat. BIOLOGY: Create life. Estimate the difference in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English parliamentary system. Prove your thesis. HEALTH: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have 15 minutes.
The "sample" was a parody, of course, but it made an important point: the test was impossible. Students were subjected from 11 to 13 hours of tests in 17 days—longer than the tests required for college, graduate school, and law school combined. Some school systems, concerned that young people would not have the stamina to get them through day after day of test-taking, supplied high-energy snacks and drinks to the kids. Parents were encouraged to get their children to bed early. Teachers were told not to assign homework during the weeks of testing.
These are "high-stakes" tests. When they are fully operational, students in grades 4 and 8 will need to pass the state tests to be promoted; students in grade 10 will have to pass to be eligible to graduate. Teachers will be "held accountable" for their students’ grades. (Forty percent are expected to fail.) Schools in which students perform poorly on the tests can be placed in receivership by the state and their faculties dismissed.
The contents of the MCAS are secret: no educators in Massachusetts except certain officials of the Department of Education and the Board of Education have been allowed to examine the tests for their age-appropriateness or their relationship to what is actually taught. The tests were devised by a company which had recently been fired by the state of Kentucky for major errors in the design and marking of tests it had administered there.
In literature circulated to parents and students before the tests, corporate backers of "higher standards" boasted that "These are very, very tough tests—the toughest that most Massachusetts students have ever taken" and that "good attendance and passing grades" no longer entitle a student to a high school diploma. To prepare our students "to compete with children from all over the world," said the corporations, much more is required.
Tests similar to MCAS are being required of young people in state after state. President Clinton is fighting for national assessments along the same lines.
What’s behind this rush to testing and "higher standards?"
MAKING SCHOOLS "LEAN AND MEAN"
As is often the case, these developments inside the schools reflect events in the wider society.
In the past two decades, corporations have adopted new management techniques designed to undermine worker solidarity and integrate workers more thoroughly into the company machine. Known variously as "continuous improvement" or "management by stress," or "kaizen," the Japanese term for it, the technique consists essentially of dividing the workforce into competing "teams" and "stressing" the production system by imposing higher and higher production quotas. As workers work faster and faster to meet the quotas, the company achieves several key goals: production is increased; jobs are eliminated; "weak links" in the system break down and are replaced.
Most important, "continuous improvement" creates great anxiety in workers about their ability to meet the ever-increasing goals, and encourages workers to replace solidarity among themselves with loyalty to the Company Team. It forces workers into constant speed-up. Workers are kept running so fast to meet company goals that they don’t have time to think or talk about their own goals or work together to pursue them.
Corporate-led education reforms use similar strategies. They use "School-Based Management" to isolate teachers in each school from their colleagues around the system. Teachers are then encouraged to join with management as a "team" to compete for students and survival with other schools.
The reforms use testing to keep raising the standards which students and teachers must meet, far beyond what their parents were expected to achieve and beyond anything that would be of value. The purpose is the same as "continuous improvement" in a factory: raise the anxiety level and keep students and teachers running so fast to meet the goals set by the system that they have no time to think about their own goals for education or for their lives.
These reforms will have terrible effects. Many students who would otherwise graduate from high school will drop out. (In Texas and Florida, where "high-stakes" testing is in place, high school drop-out rates which had been dropping have already begun to rise.) Young people who fail to meet the new standards will be condemned to marginal jobs and told to blame themselves.
The reforms redefine education as a process whereby young people constantly "remake" and sell themselves to the corporations. The reforms attack the self-knowledge and understanding of unsuccessful and successful students alike, as young people are encouraged to redefine themselves—their own goals, their own thoughts and hopes and desires—out of existence, to make themselves acceptable to our corporate masters.
Our children have qualities more important than those desired by corporate Human Resource directors. Education conceived in this way makes economic productivity the goal and measure of human of society and makes the corporations the judges of human worth. It undermines the notion that human beings individually and collectively possess goals which transcend capitalism.
CONFLICT OVER EDUCATIONAL GOALS
There is no more vital issue to understand in education than this: The corporate and political elite who dominate education policy have goals for education which contradict the goals of the people who populate the schools: teachers and students and their families.
Public schools were supported by the industrial elite in America with the explicit intention of strengthening elite control over the working population. In the middle of the nineteenth century Horace Mann, the founder of the "common school," explained the rationale for public schools: "...common schooling would discipline the common people to the point where they would not threaten the sanctity of private property or practice disobedience to their employer."* Public schools have been used ever since to instill in young people a respectful attitude toward those in power. William Bennett, while Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, explained, "The primordial task of the schools is the transmission of social and political values." In a class society, the values which the schools are designed to transmit are the values of the dominant class—competition, inequality, the sanctity of private property, and the belief that the good things in society trickle down from the elite.
At the heart of the education system, there is a conflict over its goals. On one side stand educators and parents and students, most of whom share democratic values and want to see students educated to the fullest of their ability. On the other side stand the corporate and government elite, the masters of great wealth and power. Their goal is that students be sorted out and persuaded to accept their lot in life, whether that be the executive suite or the unemployment line, as fitting and just, and that social inequality be legitimized and their hold on power reinforced.
This conflict over the goals of schooling is never acknowledged openly, yet it finds its way into every debate over school funding and educational policy and practice, and every debate over education reform.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE SCHOOLS?
The corporate critique of the schools has served to cover up what’s really wrong with them: the schools promote inequality, competition, and unquestioning acceptance of the social order.
The elite pursue these educational goals in many ways. Shortages in school funding undermine the work of students and teachers and tell them that they are not valued. School-business partnerships promote business values in the schools. Textbooks teach that history is made by presidents and kings; ordinary people are dismissed as passive victims or a dangerous problem.
But many of the means of achieving elite goals for education are far more subtle:
*The schools assume that there are big differences in people's intelligence and that most people are not very smart, and are designed to "prove" these low expectations. Teachers are trained to find supposed differences in children's abilities; standardized, "norm-referenced" tests are designed to sort kids out and produce a range of test scores which match the social hierarchy—in other words, which show that richer people are smarter. Shortages of teachers and textbooks, lack of support for their work, and countless other devices are means by which students and teachers are set up to fail.
*The schools use competition and ranking to legitimize the social hierarchy. Students reluctant to compete for approval get low marks: what is really a conflict over values is seen as a failure of students’ intelligence. For teachers, school life consists more often of an isolated struggle to survive than being encouraged to join with other teachers to nurture students.
*Course content often has no value except as a measure of students’ willingness to master it. Much of the content consists of "facts" torn out of their social context, with all the life sucked out of them, because their life is rooted in the class war the elite seek to obscure.
These and other means are used by schools to prepare most students for working lives spent performing boring tasks with unquestioning obedience in a "democracy" in which the goals of society are not up for discussion and in which the idea of people acting collectively for their own goals is considered subversive.
WHAT'S RIGHT WITH THE SCHOOLS?
Teachers and students and their families share goals which contradict the goals of the elite, and they work to achieve these goals in every way they know how in spite of elite domination. The gigantic effort by corporate and political leaders to impose education reform is necessary precisely because the people in the schools have worked for their goals with enough success to threaten elite control.
When teachers stimulate and challenge; when they encourage all their students to learn and inspire them to think about the world as it really is; when they create a nurturing environment; when they fight for smaller class sizes; when they offer each other words of support: when they do any number of things they do every day, they are opposing elite goals for education and working for the shared goals of ordinary people.
When students help each other, or raise critical questions, or refuse to join in the race for grades and approval; when they exercise their curiosity and intelligence; even when they hang on the phone for hours, talking about "life," they are resisting elite goals and working for a better concept of life.
When parents listen sympathetically to their children, or talk with their friends or each other about the school or raising kids: when people do these things that they do every day, they are resisting elite goals and working for the opposite values of solidarity and equality and democracy.
To the extent that students succeed in real learning and teachers in teaching and parents in raising their children to be thoughtful and considerate, they succeed in spite of the education system, not because of it.
The remarkable thing about the public schools isn't that some teachers become demoralized and "burned out," or that some students drop out or do poorly, but that so many teachers and students achieve so much in the face of a system designed to fail.
EDUCATION AND REVOLUTION
Capitalist society is based on slavery: the enslavement of workers to the wage system and the enslavement of human beings to things. Education worthy of the name must help set us free, not further bind us in chains. The conflict over the goals of education is part of the class war over the goals of society. Only a movement which challenges the goals and values and power of the elite can change education.
There are a thousand questions about society which elite institutions will never raise but which are critical to our future. The revolutionary movement must consider anew the goals of human society and the measures of human achievement. It must re-examine our relationship to technology and to Nature. It must enable people to transform work and play into sources of creativity and fulfillment.
We do not have the power at this point to change education, but we can begin to pose these questions. The most liberating and humanly fulfilling education for all of us will come as we take part in the struggle to overthrow elite rule and recreate human society.
*Thanks to Bill Griffen for the H. Mann quote.