public education in america – arf – Jan 12

hello. i am a grad student that does things with education and curriculum and classrooms. so what the fuck.

the history of Reform and the Great Men

no one really wants to read 250 years of educational history. i don’t and its totally like my job to do that. the crux is pretty obvious – education is inseparable from wider societal changes and movements, most prominently those of race, gender and class. the orthodox way of telling the history of public education is to talk about The Great Men. about horace mann, about dewey and about jefferson (yeah seriously). all three, from different perspectives, spoke about the necessity for public education, and they all said nice words about the role of education in democracy. but despite this, it can be totally worthwhile to examine what 19th century reformers thought about education, because sometimes they are nice words. i will revisit this in future posts cause what else am i gonna do.

standards + the cold war + Enterprise

since time immemorial, people outside of education have thought that they can prescribe what is wrong with education, despite having never set foot in a classroom as an adult, understanding the complexities of curriculum and the motivations of educators (fuck you arkane). every time we hear about a new attack on educators, it seems like it is coming from a new angle. it is not.

merit pay for teachers, for instance, is a hundred years old. it has been implemented many times, every time apparently so novel, and it is almost always reversed within 5 years. a quote from susan moore johnson:

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in fact, up until the 1920s there was widespread “merit pay” – the massive differentials in pay between men and women in the profession (justified ofc by heinous bullshit). there is an interesting demographic shift that occured at the beginning of the 20th century, where the majority of teachers went very rapidly from being men to women. i haven’t read enough to understand that shift entirely, but my feeling is that it is due to a couple of forces, maybe the ability to pay women substantially less combined with the broadening of the curriculum shifting the perception of teaching into a caregiving role. but back to merit pay: teachers resolutely opted for standardised pay, across grades and across genders (with differentials for experience and qualifications). why has it never stuck? well, for one administrators and teachers can never quite seem to agree one what a good teacher is (see the above quote).

this ties in to a much larger movement in society to Quantify. it seems to me to be related with fordism and taylorism and that interwar period onward, moving on to mcnamara number fetishism, where you can determine a cost/benefit for anything. and this has affected education perhaps more permanently than many other areas of community life. it has its roots in merit pay, but as technology progressed, so it infiltrated the classroom in the desire to Improve Standards. this is really the vector through which private industry has time and again weaseled its way into education: if you can quantify Education, you can put a price on Education, and you can outsource it.

there are thousands of examples of this. some of the most interesting date back to the post-WWII boom, where technological fetishism and this kind of adulation of bureaucracy, combined with the terror over sputnik, combined for some really “funny” experiments. looking back it is actually kind of funny. you see the advocation of replacing teachers with radios.

with a few exceptions (some things have truly radicalised classrooms – biros for instance), this always follows the same spiral. outsider promises the moon on a stick – implemented at great cost and great profit – evaluation shows nothing of note – teachers are blamed for Not Keeping Up With Technology. think about a little – how many times have you in school and college laughed at the technical incompetence of teachers? and how many times have you considered how useful say computers are in education? the evidence is pretty slim, but they are ubiquitous, and good teachers are fired because they do not consider doing math problems on a computer interdisciplinary curriculum. from tinkering towards utopia (1995):
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all of this is tied into the current obsession over Standards. no child left behind exacerbated it, but the root desire for Standards has been with us for a long time. there are many criticisms of nclb (and the obama administration is doubling down on it, but don’t fret – they’re making schools More Flexible i.e. they will have greater ability to fire half the teaching staff if they don’t meet arbitrary numbers). but the desire to quantify education needs to be tackled first.

i alluded to this quantification allowing private industry to creep in. sometimes it takes a much more direct role than selling TVs or whatever.
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computers and the classroom and the economy

i like this topic. i have a degree in making computers do things and i also teach stuff. its a match made in heaven. but you’re probably a little skeptical if you read the thing before this about technology in the classroom. i am skeptical too. mostly i am skeptical of how computers are presented. you’ve probably heard this a million times:

“We need to make sure our children are ready for 21st century jobs.”


i just like totally made that up but it could come from president obama or any fuckshit who supposes to know what the fuck the role of education is. its actually tied into this much larger pattern that again goes back mostly to sputnik (but was voiced for hundreds of years before that) – that education dictates economic performance, both on the personal and macro levels. i don’t think i need to spell out to y’all why that is nonsense, but rest assured that i had to ask a room full of smart teachers why the most educated people in the world engineered the housing bubble + crash, and if they think the economic growth of china is because of education. its a very insidious idea that i’m sure most of you hate: the idea that education is to Prepare You For Work. i was sat on the bus the other day and heard three freshmen comparing the benefits of their future careers. i mean “benefits”: the healthcare and loan forgiveness benefits. to them, that was what education was for.


computers are just another vector through which this idea is expressed. it is, of course, an incredible gift to private industry also, and i’m thankful that to you folks i don’t have to lay out any evidence of how the resources are diverted away from schools where the pupils are more likely to not have computers at home. that happens a lot. in dallas recently, a school district spent several million dollars on thousands of computers, and left them warehoused for a year. whoops.


michelle rhee


so you remember earlier when the texarcana thing went totally tits up and the reason was that teachers (sorry, learning supervisor) were essentially committing fraud. well a spookily similar thing happened in d.c. a couple of years ago. you have probably heard of a lady called michelle rhee. she was the chancellor of d.c. public schools for a while. she was the poster woman for neoliberalism in education: advocating Fuck The Teachers, Choice, and Merit Based Pay (hello you). i haven’t seen it because i think i would die immediately but she was also in waiting for superman, that disingenuous awful piece of shit. and i haven’t seen it.


so anyway. you might have heard of her because, well, she implemented all this teach the test merit pay based on performance horseshit, and this thing happened:


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the machines they used to scan in the student tests could detect erasures. so they could do a neat thing: calculate how often a wrong answer was changed to a right one. obviously, there’s a natural rate for this, it happens all the time. and it turns out that over half the schools in dc had abnormally high erasure rates. that is, the teachers were committing fraud, because they would get $10k if they did so.


oh, and the teacher unions agreed to this system in exchange for being able to fire roughly 250 teachers, most of whom probably just did not take part in the widespread fraud.


charter schools


i actually have to go now and maybe someone else can talk about their views on charter schools before i get a chance to (probably not until next week) but heres something that i totally agree with from needed: a new educational civil rights movement


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