As Wayne Au explains in his book, Unequal By Design, standardized testing entered the public schools in the early 1900s as a way to graft scientific management models used in assembly line production onto the classroom by Taylorists and Eugenicists—the pseudo scientists that believed intelligence is genetic and that whites were biologically superior to other races or ethnic groups. Au writes,
“Looking back to its origins in the eugenics movement, Standardized testing provided the technological apparatus for the functioning of the production model of education…It is no coincidence that I.Q testing, eugenics and standardized testing all become prominent during the same period….”And now the letter to the school board by Jack Whelan:
Dear Seattle Schools Board Directors:
I want to talk to you about teacher morale. I understand that the children come first, but teachers are in a situation that reminds me of the safety instructions flight attendants give concerning oxygen masks. They instruct adults traveling with small children to put the mask on themselves first–and then on the child. Why? If the adult instead tries to put the mask on the child first, there’s a good chance both child and adult will die. In order to take good care of the children, you have to first take care of the adults who take care of them. If the adults aren’t flourishing, neither can the children flourish. But elite thinking in this country seems bent on a course that is destroying teacher morale. Teachers are not flourishing; they are under constant attack. And anybody who truly understands how schools work and education happens must push back against this campaign against teachers.
Teachers are under attack by people who either don’t understand how education works or have their own interests to serve in promoting this attack. These interests have a big enough megaphone to have established a widespread perception that poor instruction and bad teachers are the primary cause for failing students. This negative view of teachers has been promoted through an organized, highly scripted campaign, and it has successfully established as conventional wisdom that poor teaching and union obstructionism are the primary reason for failing schools. It just isn’t. That isn’t to say that teacher quality and professionalism can’t be improved. But the ideas that these “reformers” present are profoundly flawed and distract us from finding real solutions to improve the quality of instruction.
Ten years from now we will look back on this misguided reform program and wonder what we were thinking. Hardly any of it makes sense, and yet many intelligent, sensible people have accepted this anti-teacher messaging as established truth. And its acceptance is particularly prevalent among both Democratic and Republican elites, especially those who have had some success in business or have strong business ties. These elites have come to believe that management techniques and incentives used sometimes successfully in the business sphere are transferable to the educational sphere, i.e., that we need to manage schools efficiently and rationally on a business basis following a technocratic blueprint that owes much to Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” techniques.
The Taylorite goal is to increase worker productivity by implementing rational efficient techniques. These techniques while they often improve the bottom line often have a dehumanizing effect on workers. We are witnessing the gradual Taylorization of our schools into learning factories in which teachers are the assembly line workers, children the widgets they produce, and principals the middle managers whose sole job it is to meet arbitrarily determined production quotas. And so it follows that if the widgets are defective, it’s the assembly line workers’ fault or the managers’ for not effectively “incentivizing” line workers to meet production goals. This is a system that is designed to promote organizational investor interests, not human interests.
Incentives in the form of extrinsic rewards and punishments have been proven insulting and ineffective with good teachers whose motivations are intrinsic. The best teachers are values driven, not rewards driven. Good teachers need to be paid well enough so they don’t have to worry about money, but they are not primarily motivated by money. They are not motivated by ambitions for advancement that typifies corporate careers. They just want to work with the kids. In my view, this is one of the main reasons the corporate reformers do not respect teachers; they simply cannot understand why anybody worth his salt would be motivated by anything other than monetary or career-advancement rewards. That’s not how business works, where everything is about wining and losing, and you keep score with dollar figures. Teachers must, therefore, be an unambitious, shiftless lot, and aren’t even worth what they’re getting paid now.
This Taylorite agenda has been more quickly implemented in red states than in blue. Diane Ravitch wrote recently in her Education Week blog about what is going on in several red states:
Gov. Jindal is in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It’s hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or …. There are so many contenders for the title, it’s hard to name them all. They all seem to be working from the same playbook: Remove any professionalism and sense of security from teachers; expand privatization as rapidly as possible, through charters and vouchers; intensify reliance on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools; tighten the regulations on public schools while deregulating the privately managed charter schools. Keep up the attack on many fronts, to confuse the supporters of public education.
Many of these agenda items are being pushed in Washington State, but because of its more progressive ethos, Washingtonians have been able to retard their implementation. But while Washingtonians have been successful in pushing back against charters in the current legislative session, they have not been successful in pushing back against wrongheaded, deeply flawed, teacher-evaluation legislation, nor have they been successful in pushing back against another attack tactic, namely, the expansion of Teach for America.
Now I know some of you might have a hard time seeing TFA as part of a Taylorite or “privatizing” agenda. You ask yourself, what could be wrong with adding TFA to the mix? These bright, idealistic kids don’t have any agenda except to do as good a job as they can for the kids in their classrooms. I don’t dispute that. I admire the youthful idealism that characterizes the commitment of most TFA recruits. But this isn’t about the recruits; it’s about TFA as an organization and its slick, aggressive campaign to expand everywhere, even where it isn’t needed. There are reasons why TFA is so controversial. TFA isn’t just a sweetly idealistic group whose sole purpose is to right society’s wrongs. Something else is at the heart of its mission, and you have to be terribly gullible or willfully blind not to see it.
What drives Wendy Kopp? Why is she the darling of all the people who are in the privatizing “reform” movement Ravitch references above? You cannot understand TFA in a political vacuum. You must understand it as an essential element in this larger nationwide attack on public education. TFA is not an organization whose primary mission is to close the achievement gap. Maybe at one time it was, but now it’s about something else. It describes itself as a leadership development organization, and the leadership style it promotes is very much aligned with the Taylorite reformers.
You cannot look at TFA in isolation from all the other agenda-driven actions being promoted by the Taylorites. These reformers are all about de-professionalizing teaching. That’s what TFA recruits are. Energetic, youthful non-professionals. The Taylorite reformers are all about technocratic control and increased efficiency, and they see the union as one of the greatest obstacles to that control.
The Taylorites are OK with high turnover, because they don’t believe that experience contributes to teacher effectiveness, and they don’t want expensive teachers with seniority. The message between the lines in TFA self-promotion is that teaching isn’t that hard, that any bright kid with a few weeks of training can be a teacher. And Taylorites are looking for whatever tools they can use to diminish the power of teachers’ unions. Their goal is to show that all we need is bright, motivated (and malleable) kids in the classroom and that we have no real need for experienced, well-trained, savvy teachers who will push back against the Taylorite agenda.
Can you see why this embrace of TFA demoralizes good teachers, especially those who have been at it for a while? Can you see how insulting it is? Can you understand why teachers are so often outraged at the cluelessness of people who naively accept at face value the slick TFA promotional message? Can you see why people question the rationale for the district going through all this trouble to install TFA recruits when the actual benefits for SPS are so minuscule? The question ought not to be “Why not TFA as part of the mix?”, which seems to have been the board’s justification, but “Why TFA at all?” What purpose does it serve? What problems is it solving? What special competency do its recruits have that cannot be found through normal channels?
There are simply no substantively good reasons for TFA to work within SPS, and there are plenty of reasons why it should not. It is very hard to understand why the board agreed to place TFA recruits last year. I can only conclude that it did so because its members have uncritically accepted TFA’s promotional message and because its friends in business community are pro-TFA. But the board does not serve business-community interests; it serves first the children and then the teachers who are on front line serving the children. The teachers have told you repeatedly that they don’t want TFA. Your allowing TFA into SPS is just another demoralizing slap in the face of teachers, and it is non-productive and unnecessary.
Please ask yourself whose interests are being served in extending the TFA contract. In extending this contract, are there tangible benefits that can be defended against the obvious, tangible costs, especially to teacher morale? Please give this some thought before coming to a final decision. Please join with those who are pushing back against this attack on teachers by voting to cancel Seattle Public School’s contract with Teach for America when it comes to a vote later this month.
University of Washington Foster School of Business and a former school board candidate for Seattle Public Schools