Economization of Education: Why We Like Tests

Remember back in the day when our relationship with the U.S.S.R. was so strained that it felt delicious just to cheer for Rocky Balboa beating the mess out of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV? Those Cold War days made it so euphoric to see the American underdog finally get the job done. Our current educational policy, believe it or not, could arguably be encapsulated in the dynamic relationship between the two titans in that film. The fear that the Russians could be number one in science and technology (or in boxing) is the same fear that drove our “star wars” programs in the 80s and 90s and it also the primitive ground for our frantic obsession with test scores. Phillips and Ochs (2003) call this anxiety “Sputnik Shock,” and use it to describe the fear that Americans felt when we suddenly realized that we weren’t as competitive as we thought and thus began in earnest to focus on education as the tool to fix it. And even though our current educational landscape is far different from what it was in the early 1960s, we still seem driven by the same fear that led to the production of books with titles like What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. In essence, our current testing culture began with the “anxiety created by Soviet achievement” (Phillips, p. 458).
The American fear of being non-competitive has intensified with the rise in globalization, and reverberations are being felt throughout the educational system. We now know intimately more about our competitors and their potential and this knowledge leads to constant comparison. Who is performing better in math? Will we fall behind in engineering?! These expressions of self-doubt have had a mobilizing effect on our school system, but not in the way you might imagine. Rather than the government tightening up controls on schools and pushing for higher standards or better training for teachers, the opposite has happened. The government has relaxed policies around curriculum and school governance and made it easier for private sector management agencies and corporations to get involved. Essentially, the state has abdicated its educational throne.
Verger, Novelli, and Altinyelkin (2012) argue that governments who have lost their centrality begin to take direction from the market and economics, thus creating a private market of education and changing permanently their ability to respond to educational issues (p. 7). Now it may not be directed solely towards the former Soviet republics, but on a global scale, we are desperately seeking solutions to stay at the top. And in today’s globalized world it seems that our government is willing to bet on any plan that has enough money or prestige behind it. Verger et al. (2012) suggest that the motivation to be competitive economically has driven most countries in the world to try to become ‘knowledge economies.’ These countries “aim to raise their competitiveness and perceive education and knowledge as key assets for this purpose” (p. 14).
And that’s where testing comes in. How does a country know whether or not it will be effective in the economy? How does a country know how skilled its future citizens will be in developing the science and technology to keep it secure and competitive in a global economy? Well, the current crystal ball is student performance on internationally normed exams. And in the United States this translates to student performance on national exams that will provide the feedback that policy makers can use to make adjustments that will keep America sharp.
There are a lot of problems inherent in our current course of action if the above is indeed true. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve commented in a previous post, is that reliance on testing causes a shift in our curriculum. It prioritizes values and promotes content that was not intended to be the backbone of our educational system, and by so doing, it allows test making companies unprecedented access to set the agenda for our curriculum. This form of privatization is of grave concern, as the government has downsized its role in defining national educational priorities. Resources are no longer directed towards programs that will serve democratic ideals in providing quality education for all students, but increasingly test scores are used like the NFL combine to sort and group students into tracks where they remain.

And while this categorization doesn’t serve the individual citizenry, it does serve the interest of the market economy. For in a market economy, commodities are valued, and something has to determine which commodities have the most value. Alex Molnar (2006) argues that the market driven companies, “offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness and cannot, therefore, represent the interests of all children. Turning children over to the market ensures that they will inevitably be treated as an expense to be reduced or as a resource to be harvested. In the process some children and their families will necessarily be considered more valuable than others. For the market to produce winners, it requires that there be losers” (p. 635).
Now, I don’t know about you, but as someone who has a stake in the quality of education that we provide in our schools, I have a hard time equating students to resources. And on the other hand, I believe that what Molnar writes is compelling – the more we allow corporations to run our schools, the less students are treated as valued clients. Instead, they become commodities that we produce to further our economic agenda. And that shift makes it much easier to test, track, and sort students without regard for the actual people in the system.
Some critics might ask, “What’s the problem with taking a few cues from the market to trim the fat in the school system? Introducing a little bit of privatization and competition should make everything a bit more competitive and ultimately get the public schools back on track, right?” Lots of researchers have documented that public versus private competition does indeed lead to greater efficiency. But efficiency does not equate with effectiveness when it comes to schools. The problem with introducing market strategy in schools is that schools have been operating on sub-adequate budgets for decades now. Redirecting additional funds (to consultants for testing companies, etc.) cuts funding and essentially leaves them high and dry. Schools operate on a skeleton crew without enough resources to be safe places for their students to spend the day.

The bigger problem is that increasing efficiency has very little to do with the end result of improving student performance. Our schools are incredibly diverse places, operating for a multitude of purposes. Market efficiency cannot reach the individual students and teachers in the way that they must be reached in order to reform the system. In fact, it is my contention that this system of privatization will never have the “intended” effect of increasing efficiency (or effectiveness) because (1) it never has worked (see Edison school systems) and (2) it is symptomatic of a greater problem in our political system, and that is a general apathy for education in general. It starts with our policy makers, and can be traced in pockets throughout the system. In the next two posts of this series, we’ll explore this concept in more depth, first through the new allocation of resources, and then through a critique of how current media devalues teachers.

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