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Teachers and students are having a rough time in the United States—and not just because they are in danger of being murdered in their classrooms. Public education itself is under attack, fueled by foundation dollars, government policies and media hype. The problem isn’t international rankings, teacher pensions, or outdated theories. These are smokescreens. The enemies of American education hate it because it is public-powered, union-friendly, and people-centered. Public education doesn’t exist to churn out cheap crap so someone can make a buck. At its best, it teaches tolerance, promotes democratic values, and invests in the potential of each and every one of its students. And that’s its main problem. That’s why Democrats and Republicans alike are hell-bent on transforming our schools into a tyrannical instrument of corporate power through increased standardization of curricula, instruction, and assessments. Their goal is to manufacture “proficient” students and “distinguished” teachers—an educational master race judged by objective and scientific criteria. The end result of such technocratic pedagogy is nothing less than a eugenics of the mind.
The current mechanistic view of teaching and learning follows a model invented by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early twentieth century. Mirroring the worldview of his big-business clientele, Taylor viewed working people with contempt. “The science of handling pig-iron is so great,” he told a Congressional committee, “that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.” His “scientific management” theory turned once-independent workers into cogs in a machine by creating an industrial hierarchy where workers performed strictly mechanical tasks. Their managerial taskmasters, on the other hand, made all the creative decisions and gave all the orders. Efficiency became the sole standard by which workers would be evaluated—quantity became quality.
Taylor’s dehumanizing, disempowering system became widely adopted as a corporate model. We can see its results in third world sweatshops. But it also had political uses. Zygmunt Baumann in his book Modernity and the Holocaust called the genocidal policies of the Nazis, “a textbook of scientific management.” The way the Nazis saw it, the Holocaust wasn’t destructive but productive. They were creating a master race through their own psychopathic form of quality control. Ford automobile plants operated on the same principles. A common destination links assembly-line murder and manufacture: a utopian drive toward standardization.
Eugenicists want an end to difference and plurality. They crave the uniform. Sameness implies security—from self-doubt and from the conflicts that not only allow for personal growth but also for a true democracy. The educational system they’re creating resembles Taylorism in every way except it manages more than labor—it engineers the sense of mind and self. The way to save the public schools—which politicians insist need to be saved while simultaneously defunding public education at every opportunity—is to make sure everyone is teaching and learning the same things the same way. Our ultimate goal as human beings should be to think like everybody else.
In the eyes of many education policymakers, school has come to be nothing more than job training. Rather than provide young citizens with the cognitive abilities required to become empowered members of a democracy, educators must simply help students “succeed” in the “real world” by giving them marketable skills. What we think about, then, is what the market wants us to think about. Anything that lies outside the interests of the market at any given moment should be cut or marginalized out of the mainstream curriculum.
They call this efficiency. But it’s not education. It’s a system that doesn’t look at children as human beings that need to be nurtured—that have individual voices and learning styles. Eugenics of the mind seeks to recreate individual people into a master race of cheerful robots, managed and programmed with the right amount of information to make them efficient and docile enough for their future masters.
One of the first things they teach you in college education classes is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: the linguistic, the mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and so on. People do not learn the same way and the various kinds of intelligence are not evenly distributed in most students. Nevertheless, this educational system defines intelligence in the narrowest way—and then demands that everyone “master” often arbitrary accumulations of facts and skills by scoring a certain percentage on a test. If they don’t, federal funding will be withheld.
Why students need to be examined in some things and not in others remains mysterious. It’s not simply to provide students with marketable skills. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has predicted that only 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra in the next decade. Yet students in Pennsylvania must pass an algebra exam for graduation.
What makes algebra attractive is not its usefulness to students but rather that one’s knowledge of it can be easily quantified on an exam. That’s the rotten core of our common standards—education based on rote-memory computations that can be easily evaluated. Look carefully and you will find little encouragement to teach critical thinking, debate, or creativity. You can’t fit that on a bubble sheet—and that’s where the money is.
The test-creating/scoring industry generates profits of 2.7 billion dollars a year. Of course the claims of test-makers and policymakers that tests give us reliable information about student learning are highly questionable. Just ask students some questions from last year’s exams and see how much they’ve forgotten. These tests don’t prove someone has learned something but simply reflect one’s ability to do well on a particular test at that moment.
As if in answer to this objection, “assessment instruments” like the SAT as well as state graduation exams have begun to include sections devoted to student writing. Recently the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania spent two hundred million dollars developing its new Keystone Exams, a requirement for graduation. The money went into the pocket of Minnesota’s Data Recognition Corporation. It’s clear from recent press about DRC that exams are anything but objectively and scientifically scored there. Instead, an army of 20-something temps with no teaching or writing experience haphazardly evaluates the exams, using absurdly vague rubrics like: “a good essay includes good focus, good organization, good language skills, good grammar,” and so forth. Naturally the scorers cannot seem to agree on how one defines “good.” Former scorers report they were pressured to average out the numbers by arbitrarily assigning low or high scores in order to generate a nice bell curve.
Educational eugenicists also apply such “scientific” precision to assessing teachers, in an attempt to deskill and disempower educators, and limit their ability to teach for change. Instead of being inquisitive and imaginative agents of intellectual and social growth, teachers are compelled to submit themselves, like the students, to the gods of standardization and efficiency. Obama and Duncan demand that states wishing to pick up sparse federal funds must evaluate teachers in new ways—you guessed it: scientifically and objectively. Enter Charlotte Danielson and her Framework for Teaching (FFT), the darling of the Gates Foundation and many a state department of education. The FFT depicts teaching as a mechanical method of ensuring students “learn the standards.” All educators are evaluated by the same method, despite their often widely varying tasks, student constituencies, subject matter, and funding. What teachers know about their profession counts as nothing. Ms. Danielson, the ex-economist from Princeton with only nebulous teaching credentials, has decided (in keeping with the best principles of scientific management) that experts with no long-standing classroom experience know better than the teachers who do the educating.
At best, some of her teacher standards are self-evident to anyone who’s lasted for more than two or three years (“Teachers should provide clear explanations of content”). At worst some are possibly illegal (her inclusion of volunteering as a criterion of teacher performance most likely violates the Fair Labor Standards Act). The rest are laughably subjective or ridiculously unrealistic. The rubric states a distinguished teacher “makes a thoughtful and accurate assessment of a lesson’s effectiveness.” It does not clarify, however, what “thoughtful” and “accurate” mean. Other standards are equally murky. One of Danielson’s criteria for “distinguished” educators states that: “All students are cognitively engaged.” Another: “Students appear to have internalized these expectations.” What Ms. Danielson does not explain, however, is how exactly does an administrator attain objective information about students’ states of consciousness? And if they are not cognitively engaged, the rubric implies, it must be the teacher’s fault, not students’ own willingness to be distracted. In the FFT students have no independent will of their own. Even when they take the initiative the “distinguished” teacher gets the credit. Kids apparently play no part in the process of their own education. But that’s the point of educational eugenics. The system creates “superior” students in its own likeness—shallow, narrowly focused, distracted, competitive, amoral, and eager to appease authority. Likewise teachers follow the authoritative standards, jettison spontaneity, and submerge their individual teaching styles in order to conform to a common core. This is the master race of minds currently being engineered by the forces of corporate reform.
We must not forget that the sole purpose of machines is to make somebody’s life easier through unending servitude. It is time to not just rage against “teaching to the test” in faculty rooms but defy it openly by continuing (as many teachers do) to encourage and enact real education—showing children how to think creatively, critically and divergently, helping them to make meaning of their lives, and enabling them to problem-solve in a world that desperately needs compassionate and innovative questions and answers. The power belongs in the hands of teachers and learners, not corporations. The time to take it back is now.