“Are We #1 Yet?” A book review of:
Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education
Peter M. Taubman, 2009
Near the end of the “Introduction” (Ch. 1), Taubman concludes with the dire observation that “the transformation this book maps has [...] profoundly affected all aspects of teaching, schooling, and teacher education in the United States. [...] It is a transformation that in the name of educational reform may well render public education obsolete” (p. 5). He then quotes Diane Ravitch, “perhaps the most well known historian of education in the U.S., a former Assistant Secretary of Education, and paradoxically one of the key architects of the transformation”:
I think we really do face a situation that can justly be called a crisis. Never have I felt more certain that public education itself hangs in the balance...I don’t think the American public has any idea about the seriousness of the efforts to dismantle public education, piece by piece. (Ravitch, 2007, as cited in Taubman, 2009, ibib.)
“The title,” Taubman writes earlier in his “Introduction,” “refers to the ‘discourse’ of standards and accountability” (p. 3). What he means, though, is that “[a]lthough there is no one monolithic discourse that constitutes the transformation we are witnessing in education[...], I wanted to suggest my sense of the totality of these.” He wants us to see in that transformation its “hegemonic status, its blanketing of an area—education—that had previously emerged as heterogeneous.” To deconstruct that totality into its several constituent parts is a complicated task, one which Taubman approaches from a number of different angles, using various metaphors and heuristics to illustrate the proliferation of the business-lingo-inf(l)ected standards and accountability movement that he tracks over 30+ years in preK-12 public schools and, more recently, in higher education:
He observed that “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” […] And once a crisis has struck [...] it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo.” (Klein, 2007, pp. 6-7, as cited in Taubman, 2009, pp. 9-10)
In the case of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal legislation that in 2002 enshrined the high stakes testing that is the hallmark of standards and accountability policy, the crisis—actual or perceived—was long-simmering. Taubman locates the origin of the crisis-seeding rhetoric with the 1983 report Nation at Risk, but tracks it in great detail, through many lenses and over three decades in chapters focusing on “Tests” (Ch. 3), “The Language of Educational Policy” (Ch. 4), “Audit Culture: Standards and the Practices of Accountability” (Ch. 5), what he calls “The Seduction of a Profession” (Ch. 6), and what he sees as the complicity of psychology and the learning sciences in “Learning Capital: How the Learning Sciences Led Education Astray” (Ch. 7).
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Taubman eventually asks, as his critics are sure to do: “What then is the problem with standards?” (p. 112). Part of the problem is that “standards make everything commensurable” (p. 114), and
[i]n order to determine how well standards are met [...] quantification emerges as the way to further make commensurable diverse phenomena. Of course, in reducing everyone and everything to quantifiable data, ranging from tests scores and attendance records to performance on behavioral checks sheets, all historical, personal, idiosyncratic, and context-specific details about the person or event are erased[...]. (p. 117)
Another part of the problem is that such quantification, “offered as objective, neutral, and impersonal” (p. 122) and therefore “avoid[ing] the messiness of bias” (ibid.), is a process completed by supervisors, each of whom, possessed of biases conscious and unconscious, “interprets the standards differently and thus may rate the performance differently” (p. 124); so, “for all its standardization, human subjectivity intrudes” (ibid.) into the process nonetheless.
In the end, Taubman offers no alternative to the standards and accountability movement. Struggling with the question of what to do in a system seemingly enraptured/corrupted head-to-toe by data and numerical measurement, and which seems to be more concerned with corporate workforce development—that is skills training—rather than education, seemingly content with standard outcomes that elide and do nothing to address real and abiding inequities and forego focus on inputs and idiosyncrasies of students and of teachers and their totalities as human beings, Taubman calls explicitly (pp. 197-200) on his previous affinity for, and hope in, Melville’s infamously determined sluggard-objector, Bartleby the Scrivener. Whereas Taubman had previously seen a defensible withdrawal in Bartleby’s repeated “I would prefer not to,” a strategic exemplar of disengagement from participation in the standards and accountability game—even a flat “No” implying response and consideration—he now sees such withdrawal, such principled and passive resistance, as a necessary stage required to find space to breathe, but only as a temporary respite and not a permanent stance.
What’s next is, at book’s end, unclear, but given his position that the very basis for the standards and accountability testing regime is flawed in the first place, that any alternative must be considered tentatively and must be free of all traces of that regime, “we must first be willing to let go of our attachments to practices and discourses that participate,” he says, “even from an ostensibly opposing position, in the logics, language, and practices of standards and accountability” (p. 201). Perhaps he has in mind—contra Tom Friedman’s “hymn to neoliberalism” (p. 100), The World is Flat—that we must embrace incommensurability in the Kuhnian sense: “the third and most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms” being that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. [...] One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of [educators] see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction” (Kuhn, 1962/2012, p. 149).
Jacob A. Bennett, University of New Hampshire, USA
Howe, K. (2009). Positivist dogmas, rhetoric, and the education science question. Educational Researcher, 38(6), pp. 428-440.
Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962/2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th Edition, 50th Anniversary). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Ravitch, D. (2007). “Challenges to teacher education.” Address to American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, February 25.
Ravitch, D. (2010/2011). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (Revised and expanded paperback edition). New York: Basic Books.
Taubman, P. M. (2009). Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education. New York, NY: Routledge.
 Paradoxical because Ravitch is seeing, after over a decade of pushing for standards and accountability, how the very standards and accountability she thought would professionalize and improve the field of education are in practice dismantling the public school system. In fact, Ravitch (2010/2011) will publish a book a year after Teaching by Numbers, and in it she will lay bare the dirty secret of the genesis for President George W. Bush’s keystone education policy, No Child Left Behind, that the “Texas Miracle” (p. 96) over which he presided as governor, and which was the model for NCLB, was in fact an example of grossly inaccurate interpretation of so-called objective and neutral measures: the increased test scores were fueled in part by increased dropout rates.