Reification and the Standards Movement in Public Education

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I have taught high school English in Portland, Oregon public schools for 14 years. Our task, clarified to us time and time again, was to prepare kids for successful employment in the adult world.
Tim Hardin

Issue #45, October 1999


I have taught high school English in Portland, Oregon public schools for 14 years. My first 11 years were at Jefferson, the only high school in the state with a majority African-American population. Our task there, clarified to us time and time again, was to prepare kids for successful employment in the adult world. For the last 3 years I have taught at Wilson, which has a predominantly white and affluent student body. Here, the tracking and honors systems clearly define our teaching role, which is to give these kids the best possible "head start" in life by preparing them for entrance to prestigious universities. The difference in messages here reveals a startling and sickening aspect of contemporary American education. Yet in spite of the clear difference, there remains a common goal: neither one sees intellectual development as the central purpose for high school completion. Instead, both "schools of learning" stress education as preparation for entrance into a larger social system.

This educational preparation appears in practice as classroom curriculum, lessons, and learning, but in the final analysis a student's schooling distills into the quantified marks of grades, GPA's and test scores. Attached to a high school diploma, these credentials serve as identity markers for much of a student's subsequent life. Future schools, employers, and authorities come to know us, initially at least, through our quantified educational history. Any student knows this; it has become the "common sense" that drives, for many, the motivation to learn.

This kind of identity-making based on calculation eventually becomes a benchmark of capitalist thought, as these rational numbers increasingly become "who we are" on an essential level and govern our social relations. Taken to the extremes of postmodern capitalism, our social life becomes cloaked in the forms that Marxist social theorist Georg Lukàcs defines as "reification," the way that relationships between people take on the character of things or, more specifically, the character of commodities. Reification works in a multiplicity of ways, not the least of which by removing the "face" of the laborer from the market so that business calculations can take place without the distraction of human needs. More fundamental to our purposes here, it also leads us to base our social relations more frequently on a business or commodity-centered mode, ultimately making capitalism the only model of living available to one's consciousness.

This lifestyle of commodity relations, of calculable, daily, logical gains and losses, is taught through culture at large; nearly all our modern social relations reflect these norms. But the educational system, in particular, works to concretize this process into the workings of the daily lives, goals, and dreams of our youth. Starting at age six, we come to understand ourselves in terms of quantified measurements that have repercussions into the next grade level, the next school, or our future career. It is here that capitalist culture reproduces itself on a base level, making our educational system the central "ideological state apparatus" (in Louis Althusser's terms), because it recreates the thought systems that can further the goals of the economically driven system at large.

Against the backdrop of this "always already" systematic underpinning of capitalist consciousness through public education, our current educational climate has intensified with the national embrace of what has been called the "standards system." Numerous states, including my own state of Oregon, have worked to develop specified guidelines for content standards for which all students are held responsible. Many educators and political leaders, including Bill Clinton, embrace the push for standards as the new direction for public education going into the next millenium. However, this vision of standards policy merely works to further quantify student learning and, in the end, takes educational reification to a new, more complete level.

Standards practitioners make many claims that appear, on the surface, to be maxims. First, experts claim that students rise to the level of our expectations and that the new standards require students to do more. Naturally, students will rise to the expectations that we give to them. The question now, however, centers on what it is, exactly, that we want students to do, and, furthermore, how we will assess them. At the center of the standards movement is the notion that students will be able to show what they know through tasks that can be quantifiably assessed; class grades, now seen as fundamentally inexact markers of student ability, give way to work samples that prove how each student's skills and abilities are up to standard. This idea initially came to mean that students would provide "portfolios" of work, collections that show who they are, most truly, as scholars. This move to portfolio assessment appeared to be a breakthrough, an assessment model based on actual student work. The standards movement, in genesis, seemed to promise a way to provide students with higher expectations and skills coupled with a more authentic means of assessment.

However, this promise went unfulfilled because no one wanted to wade through pounds of student writings and projects in order to truly assess whether a given student would be successful at a particular school, job, or future. As assessment needs changed, the standards movement "simplified" into a direction of further quantification. All student projects are now judged according to numerical scores that are defined by "scoring guides." All traits that should be included in any given student assignment now become weighed against objective descriptors, and teachers are trained to score work based on state guidelines.

To focus on one example, Oregon writing assessors judge student writing according to six traits: ideas and content; organization; voice; word choice; sentence fluency; and conventions. Each trait has a scale of 1-6, 4 being proficient ("standard"). In addition, students write using four writing modes: narrative; imaginary; expository; persuasive. To achieve the standard, students must score a proficient "4" on each writing trait in each writing mode. While classroom teachers still assess most of the student work, the standards ideal says that any teacher should be able to judge any student's paper. To this end, every student must complete one statewide writing assessment, judged by assessors outside of the student's school, in order to pass the Oregon writing standard.

This kind of assessment used by the standards system highlights a number of pedagogical issues. First, only one of the writing traits in the scoring guide deals directly with the students' depth of thought; the others center on writing presentation. Thus, only one-sixth of a paper's value comes from what the paper essentially says, according to this model. The assessment weighs on form, not content; the paper must look like a standard paper, no matter what it means. Any critical thinking brought into the writing becomes fundamentally devalued in this way, potentially leading student writing towards reams of empty, formalized essays.

As papers begin to look the same, to look "standard," teachers will begin to look for certain issues of style that will come to be taught as dogma, and certain kinds of papers may begin to reign and others to disappear. Perhaps thesis statements will always appear at the end of the first paragraph. Perhaps all expository writings will avoid the use of personal narrative experience. Must all papers look the same? As the standards become more codified, teachers start to teach to the code, and writing variety, writing life, wanes.

More fundamentally, a student's educational experience shifts dramatically with the emphasis on standards. Test scores now eclipse curriculum in importance. Student achievement is now based on a wash of numerical scores in every subject, scores not just in writing, but in literature, social studies, science, math. Each subject area becomes more codified, more standardized, and for each, the students reach new numerical scores that will be, in the end, the only things that matter. Using numerical scoring guides, our students become reified more thoroughly than ever. Additionally, the disciplines themselves fall into the sway of reification, particularly the humanities; the study of human life now becomes things in trade, scores to reach through the codified learning of legislated "basics."

Finally, as the standards trend moves to the center of our educational work into the next century, it will become a key component of teacher training, and, as new teachers become more thoroughly trained in the standards system, our schools will be transformed to the point where no other system is imaginable. Teachers coming into the educational system during this period of "standards" risk losing their vision of how to do things differently; when all learning becomes quantified, every avenue of questioning becomes increasingly "illogical" since it defies the set logic in place.

The ability to imagine ways to do things differently is what is most critically at stake in our schools, and linked to this imagination is identity. The ways we come to think about ourselves are learned, and we learn many of these ways of thinking through living in our social systems, systems defined by the intricate paths of modern commodity relations into which our schools baptize us. The push to educational standards leads us to a further reified state where young schoolboys and schoolgirls learn to sweat it out for the bottom line, lives evermore filled with numbers, numbers, numbers.

Tim Hardin recently started his 15th year teaching in Portland, Oregon. He's looking at 177 students a day. His e-mail address is noise@teleport.com.

Copyright © 1999 by Tim Hardin. All rights reserved.

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