Publication Date: 2008-04-06
This chapter appears in Knowledge & Power in the Global Economy: The Effects of School Reform in a Neoliberal/Neoconservative Age, Second Edition, ed. David Gabbard (Lawrence Erlbaum 2008).
On the surface, Hirsch's premise would seem egalitarian, insisting that, with the right content, all children will have access to the same basic education: all knowledge for all people. It is, however, conservative in that it aims at preparing children for an existing, predefined world order rather than working toward a new one, but political conservatism is not what is wrong with Mr. Hirsch's list and his subsequent series of books that prescribe education standards and content for kindergartners through sixth-graders. What is wrong with Hirsch's list and that of all Standardistos is the excessive orderliness when leads to teaching by checklist. Remember Rose in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist? The queen of standards, Rose had a kitchen that was so completely alphabetized, you'd find the allspice next to the ant poison. Rose cannot mail off her brother's book manuscript until she buys 9-by-12 envelopes: "All we've got left is ten-by-thirteen. It's terrible when things don't fit precisely. They get all out of alignment."
Alignment: The battle cry of the corporate-politico-Standardisto alliance that makes its rounds under the banner of education reform.
BEWARE OF THE PROGRESSIVE STALKING YOUR SCHOOL,
People who label their think tanks "progressive" are as obsessed with the neat and tidy universe offered by alignment as are other Standardistos. Echoing Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, progressives promise a skills checklist in every lesson plan. If outfits like the Center for American Progress did not label themselves "progressive," we would have a hard time distinguishing their education policy from that of neoconservatives. Equating reform with standards and testing, they all talk about rigor, and if you wonder why this is a bad thing, look up the word in the dictionary. Then, if you have not croaked from despair, take a look at the 24-page report The Progressive Priorities Series: Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force, issued by the Center for American Progress (2005). You will see that just about the only place their recommendations differ from the rhetoric spewing forth from Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is in their failure to embrace vouchers.
Here's part of the laundry list offered by the progressive revisionists: teaching as a clinical practice profession, much like medicine; competitive compensation structures for all teachers; using data for greater accountability and smarter decision making; a uniform curriculum; learning benchmarks aligned with state standards; aligned model lessons; aligned benchmark assessments.
And it gets worse. On November 8, 2005, the Center for American Progress and the Institute for Responsive Education joined hands to write a manifesto, The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity (Brown & Rocha, 2005). Arguing that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a step forward in the standards movement, the Center makes the case that 50 separate sets of standards from 50 states is slowing down progress and what the nation needs is what President Clinton wanted: national standards and a national test.
The longstanding corporate-politico alliance marches on. John Podesta, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Clinton, the Standardisto governor who worked hard at bringing us a national test. As first lady of Arkansas, Hillary had an education plan long before she had a health plan.
As Kathy Emery and I show in Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (2004), by the time Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, the infrastructure for corporatizing schools was firmly in place. From the National Education Goals Summit in 1989, where America 2000 was ironed out, through the No Child Left Behind Act, corporate chiefs and their allies have worked to end kindergarten as we know it, to deny children's diversity in every grade, and to install a rigid system of tests and measures that will force a national curriculum onto the schools. Once that curriculum is in place, politicians can claim that every student has an equal opportunity to become a global worker. The mantra of marketplace education is "Algebra for elimination." When students fail, members of the ruling elite can send them to their rightful place on the minimum-wage dunghill with admonition, "Well, we gave you an equal opportunity to meet the gals." And the outlook is not any better for those who conquer algebra, calculus, and other things that go bump in the night. In The Shell Game, education analyst Clinton Boutwell (1997) argues that Corporados have deliberately sought world-class education in order to lower the wages of high-tech workers--with the result being a lot of highly qualified people competing for the same job--and desperate enough to take whatever is offered. A look at the U. S. Bureau of labor Statistics job projections shows that new jobs over the next 10 to 15 years are in the service industry, not in fields requiring a college degree. Larry Cuban, for one, says that "the myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, strong economy was a scam from the very beginning" (Cuban, 1994).
For the Education Summit held at IBM headquarters in Palisades, NY, on March 27, 1996, the planning committee included the governors of Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and North Carolina, as well as business leaders from IBM, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, Procter & Gamble, and Boeing. The list of people invited as resources reads like a "who's who" of corporate/conservative think tanks and their lackeys: Lynn Cheney, American Enterprise Institute; Denis Doyle, Heritage Foundation; Chester Finn, Hudson Institute; Diane Ravitch, consultant; Albert Shanker, American Federation of Teachers; Lewis Solomon, Milken Foundation; and Bob Schwartz, Pew Charitable Trusts. Third-grade teachers, of course, were conspicuous by their absence.
At this Palisades meeting, President Clinton talked of a "full-meaning" high school diploma and of "meaningful standards" that would "requite a test for children to move. . . from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school." He used the word standards 40 times in his short speech and he made it clear where these standards would come from:
This noisy alliance of politicians, CEOs, think tank entrepreneurs, and media camp followers remains intend on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lock-step through a one-size-fits-all curriculum. They call it higher standards for all.
Take a look at Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America's Public Schools (Gerstner, Semarad, Doyle, & Johnston, 2000), by Louis Gerstner, Jr., chairman and CEO of IBM. The fact that it was published within a month of the passage of Goals 2000 is no coincidence. One of the noteworthy features of Goals 2000 is that Gerstner and his cronies got to name the problem as well as define the solution: claiming the need for choice, competition, and technology in the schools; defining students as human capital and the teaching/learning compact as a "protected monopoly" offering "goods and services"; describing the relationship between teachers and the communities they serve as that of "buyers and sellers." ** Gerstner and company talk about measuring school productivity "with unequivocal yardsticks" (Gerstner et al., 2000, p. 69). They speak of the need for national tests and "absolute standards," insisting that schools must compare themselves to each other the way "Xerox, for example, compares itself to LL. Bean for inventory control" (p. 70). Now that's a fine notion: teaching as inventory control.
Gerstner and his crew address the big questions of education: "How much do students learn each month...? How great are these learning gains per dollar spent?" (Gerstner et al., 2000, p. 69). They define the business of teaching as "the distribution of information" (p. 155). At their April 1997 meeting, members of the California Academic Standards Commission of the state board of education, whose job it was to approve academic standards in the various disciplines, showed a similar fondness for teaching as the delivery of skills: "A fifth-grade teacher would have a firm grasp on what skills and knowledge had been conveyed in grades K-4, and would deliver kids to the next grade ready to continue with the next set of expectations." How many minutes does a fledgling teacher have to be in a real classroom before she realizes that students do not pass by her desk like goods on a conveyor belt? You can teach and teach and teach. You can even teach the California seventh-grade history standards. But all your teaching does not mean those pesky students are going to learn--or deliver their skills intact to next year's teacher.
It is long past time that we question whose good is being served when kids are pushed out of school without a diploma. Whose good is being served when, instead of denouncing and dismantling high-stakes testing, quisling academics publish books on how to train children to feel better about taking the tests? Whose good is being served when once-venerable professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English are no hawking corporate flimflam called 21st-century skills? Whose good is being served when hapless teachers are manipulated into teaching from an impossible canon decreed by the politico/corporate cartel? Members of Congress, executives at IBM, and the folk at progressive think tanks can sleep easy, knowing that every seventh-grader in the land is being trained to identify William Tindale. (For a reason known only to them and the Almighty, the California Standardistos who wrote this curriculum imperative insist on this third alternative spelling.)***
Believing that we teachers are our stories, and because Jack's story is one of the most important of my career, I get it out often, re-examining what it means. When I taught in an alternative high school, part of the public school system, where our main job was to keep those kids out of contact with regular kids, Jack was one of my most difficult, irregular students. One day, out of desperation, I shoved an article in Harper's about Scrabble hustlers in New York City at him, growling, "Read this!" Attracted by the fact that street hustlers made money from a game, Jack noted that serious players prefer the Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary because it has lots of extra word lists, words beginning with the same prefix, and so on. I insistd that for launching his own Scrabble career, our American Heritage Dictionary would surely be adequate, but Jack pestered until I ordered Funk and Wagnall's. Always eager to upend preconceptions about my students, I felt pretty good about telling my supervisor that a student had requested a dictionary recommended in Harper's. With the Scrabble board and the new dictionary in hand, Jack moved to a back corner of the room. He stayed there for six months. According to our school rules, a student had to be in attendance only 3 1/2 hours a day. Most days, we had to shove Jack out after eight hours.
As the most obnoxious of the obnoxious, Jack probably started playing himself in Scrabble because nobody else would go near him, but then a passion for the quest took over. Jack sat there muttering, cursing, studying the dictionary. During this Scrabble marathon, Jack did o school assignments, and significantly, none of his classmates asked me, "How come?" How come they were doing school assignments and Jack wasn't? My experience is that most kids want to be "regular" and they do not complain when an oddball gets irregular treatment. The simple truth of the matter was that nobody wanted to be like jack. My supervisor, however, could not resist a few digs. He would walk into the room, nod toward the corner, and say, "Jack still playing Scrabble?"
I'd reply, "Yes, he's still working hard at it." Give the man credit. Having hired me, he then allowed me to take charge. I will not pretend that my smile did not become a little forced by the third month and even desperate by the fifth, but the fact of the matter is that no one can make a student study anything. And remember Frank Smith's advice: When a student persists at the same irregular activity, doing it over and over, he is not wasting time, is not trying to get out of real work. I can testify that whether it is a third-grader reading Rumpelstiltskin 16 days in a row (before I stopped counting) or a kid obsessing over Scrabble, he persists at that activity because he is getting something important out of it.
But if you are welded to standards and testing, if you bow every morning at the alignment altar, then you have to tell the kid he cannot read Rumpelstiltskin again. Or play Scrabble for six months. In reality, in his decidedly unaligned state, Jack was engaged in the most difficult work of all--that silent, solitary, internal task of coming to grips with one's self, with one's own deepest needs. Jack's work meant first changing his view of himself and later figuring out where he might find a place for himself in the world. Finally, Jack decided he was ready, and he challenged me to a game of Scrabble. He trounced me badly. It was a wonderful, electric moment. The immediate results were that other students wanted to play Scrabble with Jack, and soon after his triumph, Jack started working on the regular school curriculum.
Jack's story is one of the leitmotifs in my professional career. I cannot stop from telling it over and over. I knew at the time that his Scrabble work was important, but years later, I am still learning what it meant. In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the world of Competitive Scrabble Players (2002), Stefan Fatsis shows the reader that Scrabble at this level is about weirdness, extreme weirdness. It is also about linguistics, psychology, mathematics, memory, competition, doggedness. Scrabble at the national competitive level and with one out-of-kilter kid in an alternative school set up for misfits is about mastering the rules; it is about failure and hope. But we must not forget: it is also about weirdness.
* For a discussion of Marc Tucker and his connection to Clinton's plan for national standards and testing, see Emery and Ohanian (2004, pp. 48-52). Conspiracy theories continue to swirl around Tucker. The right wing sees him as a prime mover for "womb-to-tomb" government control. An emerging left-wing theory is that he is positioning himself for lucrative deals when school choice becomes a reality.
**This analysis is adapted from Ohanian (2000)
***I don't know which is my favorite: seventh-graders analyzing the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of Islamic civilizations in the Middle Ages, of China in the Middle Ages, of the sub-Saharan civilizations of Japan in the Middle Ages, of Europe in the Middle Ages, and of Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations; or the theological, political, and economic ideas of the major figures of the Reformation (e.g., Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale). These are just 2 of 11 standards to be covered by California seventh-graders.
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