Imposing the business model on schools

September 20, 2012

IN RESPONSE to "Teachers and the testing mania": An excellent summary of the arguments against standardized testing within the "business model." These are some semi-coherent reflections on the role of standardized testing and the business model in education.

You observe that: "The irony of this model is that it is not actually the model used to evaluate managers in private corporations. They do not take standardized tests to determine demotion, promotion or firing. Indeed, if the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that corporate executives and managers can make millions of dollars in compensation even when they run their own companies into the ground."

But this is the model that has been used to devalue and deskill technical labor and wrest from it all decision-making for almost a century--that is Taylorism.

LAST SUMMER, I finally picked up and read Harry Braverman's book Labor and Monopoly Capital and found his analysis to be a powerful tool for understanding the "business model" as I've experienced it, both as a former public high school teacher and a current adjunct educator in the City University of New York (CUNY).

Braverman discussed the tendency--and its maximum expression, Taylorism--for capitalist management to progressively wrest technical knowledge and control over the labor process from skilled, technical and professional workers during the course of the 20th century, increasingly subdividing and simplifying the skills required to perform technical labor, often replacing those skill sets with automated processes, and removing any element of autonomous decision-making from the tasks.

Braverman wrote his book prior to and during the post-war boom, but I think it is all the more relevant in an epoch of neoliberal advance, a period which has been characterized by the capitalist effort at lowering expectations (and employment opportunities) and destroying unions and collective labor resistance.

At least I found Braverman's analysis to be an accurate description of the spiraling "teaching to the test" phenomenon I had experienced as a high school teacher--even then, two decades ago, at every job I interviewed for, the principal would demand to know my students' New York State Regents Exam scores.

For the past decade or so, the business model has been making rapid inroads in college classrooms as well, accompanied by other "Taylorist" policies. Most of the biology classes I've taught for the past several years have been standardized test and commercial textbook-driven, with increasing loss of control over content by the instructor.

An introductory biology course I'm currently teaching is an example. It is utterly lockstep. The course content is rigidly defined--the same lessons must be taught by all course instructors at the same time and evaluated in exactly the same way. All tests must be submitted to the course coordinator for approval.

On a larger scale, CUNY recently started implementing a program called "Pathways," which takes away the faculty's right to make governance decisions concerning academics and curriculum, and mandates the billionaires and their appointees on the Board of Trustees make those decisions.

Pathways was proposed as a way to facilitate the transition for students at CUNY junior colleges to senior colleges. The way it does this is by dumbing down the curriculum in the four-year schools, rather than enhancing remediation or implementing other programs that would bring students up to speed. For example, it forces science departments to cut classes from four to three credit hours--which would force faculty to water down curricula and make lab sections meaningless.

Last week, in an act of defiance, the English Department at Queensborough Community College voted to reject the Pathways mandates to reduce course credits and hours of composition classes. In reprisal, the administration threatened to eliminate all composition courses, cancel all English Department searches, call all full-time faculty reappointments in fall 2013 into question, and terminate all adjunct faculty.

Fortunately, the QCC administration was forced to back down as protests began to escalate, and rescinded these threats. I have no doubt that the climate engendered by a year of struggles in CUNY and New York City education generally, and the current fight being waged by the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago--all struggles against the "business model"--had a role in forcing management to withdraw their threats.
Mike, New York City

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