Standardizing our educational system has been based on the twin pillars of fear and control: control of process and content and outcomes, and fear that the controls won’t hold (and that ‘I’ll’ be blamed). Debbie Meier writes very persuasively in her account of the creation of the Mission Hill School that it was difficult to create a culture of trust within the school, among teachers and between the school staff and parents, when the larger school system was organized in a way that was predicated on distrust. Her chapters on the ways a hierarchical accountability system assumes the next-lower level can’t be trusted, thus needs to be controlled, are enlightening: each level in the hierarchy is “accountable” to the level above for how well the controls on the level below are “working.” The kinds of trust and respect essential for working together on behalf of children are antithetical to a model based on the assumption of distrust.
Standardization, then, is merely an instrument of control in a system of distrust. It shrinks the number and types of variables. The critique that standardization (of content, of content format, of tests) is depersonalizing, even dehumanizing misses the point: in a system of management controls, depersonalization is a goal, not a negative side effect. A system in which children’s curiosities and their irritatingly uneven and complex development and their variety of home languages and life experiences shape the curriculum would be chaotic – not easily managed by a central district office, much less a state department of public instruction or a centralized federal system of mandates and sanctions. Standardization can’t in itself render all children uniform. So what standardization has done is strip away as many variables as possible, ultimately reducing children to, at first, their standardized test scores and, as we now know, to “data points,” an even more cold, generic cipher. (And in the name of “personalized learning!’ of which I'll say more in a later post.)
That computer-scored tests narrow the curriculum should not be a surprise, either. How else to control a large system efficiently except to reduce course content to fragments and fact-lets that can be studied in a format conducive to being scored by computers (or by scripted hourly wage, minimally educated, scorers-for-hire)? To prevent inventive teachers from pulling out their more complex lessons, making extended and in-depth assignments, and claiming space at the margins of the official curriculum to “really teach,” many districts have purchased (at great expense) curricular packages produced directly by the test companies themselves. Such scripts feed into the control system in two ways: getting rid of the possibility teachers will clog up the system with topics they’re passionate about, but which have no utility in the test-score production, and reducing the chance that all the teachers in a given grade, or subject, or school will be doing something different. “Different” as in “impossible to control,” and “not generative of the ‘data’ we need.”
If we’re going to be successful in reclaiming a vision of education that serves children well, and that posits a persuasive counter to standardized schooling, we need a new vocabulary for talking about teaching and learning and children’s development. “Achievement” has been hijacked as “getting a good test score,” and “teaching” has been in many jurisdictions transformed into information delivery. I’m hearing from teachers that such central concepts as “learning” and “child development” have been replaced (in their faculty meetings, principals’ memos, central office directives) by “measurable outcomes.” I have seen some pre-K and kinder teachers whisper when they talk about child development – or look over their shoulder to see if an administrator might be walking by. They won’t give up their knowledge of the many ways children develop, but neither do they want to have to be told – again— “that’s all well and good but we’re having to be accountable for our outcomes now.”
I’ve struggled with the paucity of our educational language for a long time. I truly believe if “standardization” weren’t so close to “standards,” many thoughtful educators, researchers, and policymakers would not have confused the two and would have realized sooner that those of us documenting the harmful effects of standardization were not “against the standards movement,” which was at that time a serious collaborative attempt to enrich, update and upgrade the content and ways of knowing in the subject content fields. “Standardization,” of course, is oppositional to and degrading of academic “standards,” but that awareness came late in the policy debates, made obvious to many only after NCLB imposed the “Texas” model of standardization on states that were otherwise making progress toward raising academic standards. (Then those of us in Texas began getting the “why didn’t you warn us?” calls. No joy in having seen it coming.) But if our traditional “education” words have been co-opted, are there words that have power to re-shape the debates and bring us together on behalf of kids?
My next post will elaborate on my nomination for a new word to counter standardization: “messy learning.”