On the logic of standardization: a response to Jeff Bliss

If you haven’t seen the viral video of Duncanville, TX high school student Jeff Bliss eloquently condemning the endless procession of worksheets that counts as education today, what’s keeping you? I can’t think of a better way to spend 87 seconds of time.

I’d like to respond to Bliss’ equally thoughtful and visceral remarks by taking a step back and asking simply, what is the logic behind standardization? Standardization defines nearly every aspect of the educational process at present but it’s obviously got to do with a lot more other than education alone. Accordingly, I think that if we want to understand why standardization is such an attractive framework for education, we should start by seeing the concept in as holistic a fashion as possible. I’ll get back to education eventually, but first I want to expand the canvas a bit.

The logic of standardization is a legacy of the factory. Who determines standards? Toward what end? Today, the core of capitalist production demands only the standardization of results rather than the standardization of processes. In fact, much of capital’s present ability to achieve efficiencies in the standardization of commodities often comes from removing standardization from the processes of production. For instance: How “standardized” was the application of building codes in Bangladesh? As David Harvey and others have pointed out, in recent years, the more exploitative forms of capitalist production have increasingly moved away from the factory model and back to the workshop (often organized on the basis of familial, clan, and caste hierarchies rather than the factory logic of labor differentiation by specialization alone). In many respects, this is nothing new. The suburbanization of production (and the production of new suburbs as part and parcel of capitalist production) was already a phenomenon well-known to Marx; the emergence of the post-War defense industry as a collection of more or less decentralized engineering, machining, communications, computing, optical, chemical, and theoretical “shops” is another long-standing example; the pre-established differentiation of their products allowed greater degrees of fluidity and collaboration regarding productive tasks within individual shops; granted this fluidity of job duties was made possible by the over-arching standardization of product specifications made possible by the fact that this plethora of decentralized shops often served a single customer–the Defense Department–who standardized its demands. This production model was itself one of the many gifts that the public sector gave to the private sector: just ask Wal-Mart.

Where is the factory logic of the standardization of production processes still applied most religiously today? In two places above all, it would seem: schools and prisons. Mandatory minimum sentencing is a form of legal standardization that regulates the flow of “inputs” (i.e., poor, black, and brown bodies) into the production process. Ensuring the standardization of security protocols, inmate conditions (food, space, medical care, etc.), building standards, etc. in turn defines the official logic of the production of the prison as a commodity. However, just as in other forms of production, there is always money to be made by subverting the official production standards (e.g., overcrowding, cheapening food and medical care, taking a laissez-faire attitude toward inmate safety, etc.). The compelled labor that many prisoners are made to perform while serving in prison functions according to the classically specialized factory model not because that model has a unique claim to productive efficiency but only thanks to the overarching presence of force as it defines every aspect of the conditions of production in such settings (which, in fact, is always the condition upon which the efficiency of factory production depends).

This brings us, at last, to the logic of standardization as it is encountered in the educational system today. Many of the conditions discussed above with respect to the production of prisons also apply to educational production. “Standards” determine not only the content and delivery of curriculum, the processes of teacher certification, the parade of background checks required of all school employees, but everything from school building codes to the nutritional content of school lunches. School districts purchase only computers, software, textbooks, desks, and chairs that meet pre-ordained state “standards.” The creation of such “standards” constitutes the job duties of many state bureaucrats and these “standards” in turn insure the profitability of well-connected corporate educational suppliers. On the other hand, just as in the case of prisons, money is also made by cutting corners when supplying standards, especially when the cheaper materials are thought to be more or less indistinguishable; and so, some of the worst quality meat in the country goes into school lunches.

The absurd over-standardization of what seems like nearly every detail of the educational process found at traditional public schools in turn makes possible a critique of these institutions as inefficient. As an institutional outgrowth of this critique, charter schools generally operate with much more lax standards concerning curriculum, textbooks, teacher training, and building regulations (collectively: the means of educational production, if you will). Interestingly, however, the comparative lack of standards dictating the process of educational production found at charter schools is in turn justified solely by their ability to obtain sufficient results on standardized tests. This mirrors the manner in which the decentralization of production in the defense industry is made possible by that industry’s having a single customer; in the case of schools, the state-as-customer buys the commodity of students with acceptable standardized test scores; there can be 10,000 different charter schools run under 10,000 different conditions precisely because the state-as-customer has itself dictated the standards of the commodity that it will purchase. In other words, contrary to the free market dogma regarding charter schools, in fact–rather than having anything to do with a robust market–charter schools much more closely resemble small manufacturers clamoring to fill a single, pre-determined job order made by a single firm that has a monopoly in its given industry; there is competition, but only with respect to the standards of competition that are set by a single buyer; competition takes place with respect to the different approaches of individual schools with respect to the standard goal of producing “outputs” (i.e., students with acceptable standardized test scores) as efficiently as possible by any means necessary; no matter the educational production process, the results are intended to be the same in all cases.

I don’t want to suggest that standards are in themselves the problem. In some sense, the dissemination of standards is what allows us to speak a common language (e.g., the various genres of music), to coordinate our movements through space (e.g., traffic rules), and to meet similar ends with similar tools (e.g., the standards of computer hardware, which in turn make possible certain standard operating systems which facilitate communication in certain pre-configured ways). But standards also help humans to organize themselves into armies for the sake of killing one another; moreover, the more widely adopted a given standard, the less susceptible it is to change (the technologies and norms based upon fossil fuel energy being the most obvious and pernicious example). Standards facilitate human expressions of creativity but at other times they smolder our passions for novelty, change, and chance; standards make us healthier but they also kill us; standards provide a set of social rules according to which we can set our designs and intentions but these rules invariably favor those actors well-situated to take greatest advantage of them.

The question concerning standards then, like most questions complex enough to think about for longer than a minute, is not whether they are simply good or bad. Better questions to ask are: What interests does the standard serve and what does the standard take an interest in leaving out? As I see it, it is with respect to such questions that we should reflect upon Jeff Bliss’ impassioned critique of the standardized educational process.

The root of Bliss’ complaint concerns the worksheet as a mode of pedagogy. The justification of worksheet pedagogy is not so much that it teaches reading, writing, or math skills effectively, nor that it is an efficient conduit of information. The virtues of worksheet pedagogy are 1) student assimilation of facts, concepts, and skills can be tracked efficiently and frequently and 2) the worksheets are themselves designed to provide students with practice with respect to both the content and the format of the standardized tests that constitute the consumable product of education for the state. The advance notice concerning student’s future testing performance that worksheet pedagogy provides is particularly important because teachers and administrators know that their jobs depend upon student test results, and accordingly, they don’t want to leave such results to chance. If worksheets show that students are “underperforming,” the cure is simple: even more worksheets until they improve. The worksheet is both the assessment and the lesson contained in the smallest, most temporally segmentable form possible.

Bliss’ demand–that his teacher abandon or simply provide a respite from worksheet pedagogy and instead engage in classroom discussion–as simple and reasonable as it may be, is nevertheless impossible. It is only the students who have already demonstrated that they can be trusted to perform well on NCLB tests (or whose level of social privilege in and of itself makes such demonstrations unnecessary) that get the luxury of learning by discussion. With respect to the students who need the social benefits of education the most, teaching by discussion is simply too risky a proposition. The most immediate risk from the point of view of teachers and administrators is that discussion is not the most direct way of leading students to the standard pre-ordained result that the powers that be demand that they reach (at exactly the same time, regardless of their differences in abilities or development, etc.). Even if it is adopted with the best of intentions, and even if it is indeed the most efficient method of preparing students to score well on standardized tests, there is a limit to how much worksheet pedagogy students can tolerate; while some can tolerate more of it than others, no one can tolerate it forever.

As I see it, the limits to how much worksheet pedagogy a person can tolerate have to do with the nature of assessment in general and the fact that worksheet pedagogy devotes such an obscene amount of time and resources to assessment. The thing about assessment is: sometimes you either know or you don’t. If you know already, assessment is more or less unnecessary. On the other hand, if you don’t know yet, assessment alone is almost certainly not going to help you figure it out. Accordingly, we can say that the greater the amount of time devoted to assessment, the less time there will be for actual learning. When you add to this the fact that students are very aware of the fact that assessment is not learning–for that is above all exactly what Jeff Bliss is telling his teacher–it seems that this system is actually well-designed in order to make students learn as little as possible while being as frustrated as possible in the process.

There is another reason that discussion is a dangerous mode of pedagogy, or at least why it would be dangerous if it were afforded to students who are not the most privileged. If given the opportunity to voice their opinions, the possibility exists that students may comment upon the absurdity of their circumstances in ways that their peers would sympathize with. Moreover, the reason and conviction of student resentment may at times be difficult to contradict, even by authority. The teacher cannot argue with Jeff Bliss. She can only exercise her limited threats of authority from the confines of her desk. She may know the absurdities of the system that employs her very well, but she knows better than to talk about those absurdities, for doing so would raise the question of what could be done to change them. As someone who institutes this system of absurdities, she knows that such a conversation could only undermine her authority and so she understands that such a conversation must not be had.

It is more or less safe to give opportunities for discussion to students of privilege because they learn very quickly that their future success depends upon attaining leadership roles within the present system of absurdities. Moreover, they are less aware of present absurdities simply because their privilege often insulates them from experiencing those absurdities directly in their most potent forms (e.g., worksheet pedagogy). Because they are privileged, they are trusted. Because they are trusted, they are taught instead of merely assessed. Finally, because privileged students are actually taught–instead of just given an endless supply of worksheets–whatever initial differences in test performance may have been used to justify class-based segregation, the process of educational production will itself soon exacerbate these differences. This is how the educational system reproduces inequality, not by accident but by the very standards of its design. Any questions?

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About 11again

Used to be an academic... now I'm a washed up academic. I like cooking, blues music, black writers, and morally compromised people of all persuasions.
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