The Key Word is Stick

Every year, it seems, we move just a tiny little bit closer to imposing the terrible ideas to colleges and universities that have been so disastrous in our public schools. We’ve spent three decades or so pretending that standarized tests, in particular, are the best way to improve education. The focus on so-called assessment allows us to ignore the radical class inequities that continue to undermine public education. It’s much easier to test than to redistribute money.

We don’t stop at testing. In K-12 we demoralize teachers and break unions by privatizing schools via charters and voucher programs. Similarly, in universities teachers have been demoralized mostly by the almost complete destruction of the profession in favor of using casual labor and adjuncts. We seem no more willing to address the root problems of higher education than we are wiling to address the inequities which continue to undermine the entire project of public education.

That’s why it’s so depressing to hear more about the Obama administration‘s use of the idea of accountability and assessment to try to shape the development of higher education. Assessment is one of those ideas or words that sound so reasonable, even scientific, but it’s largely a myth when it comes to education. (See this piece for a great example of the myth of assessment and accountability.) Or, rather, the myth is the idea that an education can be “measured” in an objective fashion like, say, average summer temperature.

In Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, a kind of hybrid of sociobiology and mathematics can essentially predict the future. That was the great dream of mid-20th century science. It’s failed again and again. Perhaps most famously, the science of intelligence (if that’s the word) developed first an ‘intelligence quotient’ or IQ test (deeply rooted in racist assumptions) and then a standardized test that was designed to predict the future performance of students at college.

More than seventy years of research has shown that the standardized test simply cannot do what it was designed to do. What’s worse, the often well-intentioned desire to “prove” that a person is educated, or intelligent, has time and time again become both a distraction from real problems as well as a stick used to beat up on teachers. Imagine if the Obama administration tied federal higher education grants to administrative efficiency or to full to part time employment ratios…

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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