Standards: The Aggressive Push For Power and Control

John F. Medina

I really enjoyed reading One Size Fits Few by Susan Ohanian. She has a style that is both informative and witty. In this book, Ohanian makes a strong case against the Standards movement which seems to have overtaken the education establishment here in the U.S. In the introduction to her book she says, "... it is my moral duty to offer a counterargument to people who would try to streamline, sanitize, and standardize education." This book is also an urgent call to teachers to arise and unveil the dubious agenda of the Standards movement-- "Standardistos offer a viciousness that must be laid bare. With Standardistos storming the media ramparts, teachers cannot maintain their preferred role of closing their doors and keeping quiet."

In many respects, Ohanian's call has already gone unheeded too long. In the past six years that I have been teaching, I have noticed an unsettling entrenchment by the Standardisto forces within our public school system. About the same time that I started work as a teacher, I was handed a document which outlined a "District Framework" for achieving a standards based curriculum. The district declared that this Trojan-horse of a document was only a "Draft Copy," but one would have to be insufferably naive to believe that the district actually intended to get real input from the teachers before publishing the final version of this document. The district administration, of course, had enough political savvy to schedule standards informational meetings throughout the district. For these meetings, teachers were herded into large auditoriums and were ushered into seats as if awaiting a movie feature presentation. Without knowing it, the teachers had been politely coerced into sitting quietly as the administrators prepared to unleash a barrage of pro-standards propaganda. For starters, the administrators employed a familiar divide and conquer technique. A few known Standardisto teachers were asked to sit on top of the auditorium stage, so when the auditorium was hushed, these Standardisto teachers promptly started giving their pro-standards testimonials. Essentially, the "special" teachers on stage started to tell the "regular" teachers in the audience what it really takes to have an authentic "conversion experience" into the standards movement. The "regular" teachers had been reduced to being mere spectators pliantly exposed to a glossy multimedia show which advertised the merits of a standards based curriculum. After some time, an administrator finally grabbed the mike and fervently sermonized the audience with statements like- "We must do it for the children!" and "We must all learn to put children first!" and "We must insist on holding everybody to high standards!" In One Size Fits Few, Ohanian described this Standardisto self-righteousness perfectly when she satirically said, "Anybody who sets himself up as the savior of culture and literacy is of course, on the side of the angels." Needless to say, during the meeting, the district strategists definitely achieved a new standard in the area of tawdry salesmanship. Towards the end of the meeting, an administrator, in a hushed tone, finally said that the meeting was now open for questions or comments. Predictably, at that point, nobody wanted to take the risk of looking like a teacher with low standards, so only a few teachers sheepishly made some comments. It was my first year as a teacher, but even then, I had a good idea about the ultimate meaning of this meeting. This meeting gave me a small but potent glimpse of the meanness and indoctrination that was to come in the name of standards. 

After staging the aforementioned propaganda campaigns, the district could then claim that it had consulted with the teachers and that it had received input from them. Thus, it then moved quickly to finalize its own version of a standards based curriculum. Not long after, my principal handed me hefty exhaustive documents which detailed district standards for language arts, math, science, social studies, music, and art. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the disingenuous administrative bureaucrats were already adding the finishing touches to these documents while still pretending to solicit input from the rank and file body of teachers. Undoubtedly, the district brought in the usual ubiquitous cohort of paid consultants, paid "education experts," and an assortment of other paid opportunists in order to help streamline the process. Apparently, the first rule of being a paid consultant is to know how to charge a parasitically exhorbitant rate so that the district feels that they have hired someone with "high standards." Probably, the second rule of paid consultants is to discourage teacher input because the teachers might make the inexcusable mistake of reminding the district administration that there actually is a real world out there with real schools and real classrooms having real children. 

At any rate, leaving teachers out of the actual decision making process is nothing new, and in fact, it is a common occurrence within the education establishment. Sane people could never imagine having a National Medical Summit without first inviting large contingents of practicing doctors to the event. Yet, predictably, from Ohanian's account, it seems that no one raised an eyebrow when practicing teachers were conspicuously missing from the list of invitees to the 1996 National Education Summit. Ohanian states, "Also notably absent from this summit meeting were teachers. Teachers, of course, have good reason to know that CEOs, politicians, think tank scholars, and media pundits may not be the best people to decide what needs to go on in classrooms across America, particularly when they're enshrining testing and social Darwinism." For many years now, the private enterprise propagandistic con artists have been relentlessly trying to convince Americans that public schools can never succeed unless they are run like businesses. Therefore, we should not be surprised to learn that the list of invitees to this National Education Summit seemed like a list of invitees to a National Business Summit. Of couse, politicians and business power brokers have always maintained a symbiotic relationship, so again, we should not be surprised that the politicos sniffed the money trail all the way to the National Education Summit. Ohanian states, "The Planning Committee included the governors of Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and North Carolina, as well as business leaders from IBM, AT&T, Bell South, Eastman Kodak, Procter & Gamble, and Boeing. Participants included governors and business executives from forty-three states."

The reality is that hidden behind every standards document there lies an aggressive push for power and control. As usual, when one investigates any issue having to do with power and control, the usual culprits show up. Ohanian aptly refers to these power mongers when she states, "What I do know is that across the land teachers are bowing to the pressure of corporate-politico-infotainment pronouncements..." These power brokers know that it is easier to maintain their grip on power if they have access to the lives and minds of school children. In a nutshell, if you can control what is being taught in schools then you have a reasonable chance of controlling the perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs of current and future generations. Adolph Hitler knew this simple rule quite well which is why he immediately pounced on the German school system. History teaches us that people who are fixated on the pursuit of wealth, power, and status are usually weak-willed when it comes to issues of social and economic equality and justice. Ohanian states, "Politicians, corporate leaders, media pundits, and education entrepreneurs don't talk about social responsibility." Ohanian also mentions that they don't talk about compassion or caring. More concretely, Ohanian states, "It is morally bankrupt to cooperate with politicians and corporate CEOs in preaching 'world-class standards' while burying the real problems of political malfeasance, corporate greed, and the shocking number of children living in poverty under a cloud of semantic obfuscation. Such tactics lead to the deforming rather than the reforming of educational opportunity."

Closely connected with the aforementioned concept of power is the use of propaganda to encourage the idea that the "corporate-politico-infotainment" people are involved in the Standards movement only because they have the best of intentions and that they just want to make sure that our children are prepared for the jobs of the future. The California State Department of Education reveals this behind the scenes propaganda machine when, according to Ohanian, it states that it has created standards that reflect "the knowledge and skills necessary for California's work force to be competitive in the global, information-based economy of the 21st century." A simple translation of the Department's corporate sponsored jargonistic statement is--- start marching to our drum now or risk sentencing your child to a future of unemployment lines, or still worse, welfare lines. As an antidote to the Department's global market capitalist sentimentality, parents would be wise to listen to Ohanian when she declares, "To barter the present lives of young children for some promise of future job security is a delusion and a fraud." Ohanian mentions a book entitled,Shell Game: Corporate America's Agenda for Schools by Clinton Boutwell. Ohanian states, "Its (Boutwell's book's) premise, documented with lots of facts and figures, is that, contrary to lthe claims of big business, U.S. schools and colleges are producing lots of well-qualified graduates, but there aren't enough high-paying jobs to go around. Boutwell says that business executives like Gerstner want educators to produce more and more students with high-tech skills, building a large labor pool from which he and his cronies can choose 'the pick of the litter' and pay them low wages." Furthermore, Ohanian states, "Soon after receiving his signing bonus, Gerstner fired 90,000 of IBM's 270,000 employees, the same kind of highly-trained workers he insists the schools aren't producing." 

In addition to the above mentioned fraud, one of the dangers of the Standards movement is that it has the potential to destroy whatever joy of learning still remains at the elementary school level. Ohanian states, "... across the land teachers are bowing to the pressure of corporate-politico-infotainment pronouncements: They are eliminating recess and putting away the building blocks, the tempera paints, and the picture books ... They are bringing out the skill drill worksheets..." As a school teacher, I am personally aware of meanness of the Standards regime. In my district, classroom parties were outlawed because, ostensibly, they do not fit under any standard. Fieldtrips must also fit under grade-level standards or they risk being canceled. Administrators have told us that every lesson must be tied to a standard. Technically, even bulletin boards must be based on the standards. At one point, administrators even suggested that we make enlarged copies of standards statements and post them throughout the room. Teachers finally had the sense to object when administrators began to enter classrooms to ask children if they knew what standard was being taught at that moment. Then came all the talk about "aligning" the standards, the curriculum, and the SAT9 standardized test. For teachers that are aware of code talk, this means "teach to the test and forget everything else." Of course, the ultimate losers of all this madness are the children. Ohanian states, "What I do understand is that the trickle-down theory of academic competitiveness and preparing kids for their SAT's means that kindergartners no longer have time to play. Maine, heretofore regarded as a state with a sane and sensible education system, now has standards with 178 indicators for kindergarten success."

Part of what is fueling this insanity is that the Standardistos do not really trust teachers. In the minds of the Standards-based obsessive compulsives, teachers are not deemed as professionals worthy of respect. We are crudely perceived as simple technocrats who can manipulate "variables" all day long in order to "cause" learning to occur. Even worse, in the eyes of some Standards mongers, such as University of Houston professor Barbara Foorman, teachers are even lower than technocrats. In Foorman's opinion, the teachers themselves can be viewed as variables to be manipulated by someone else. According to Ohanian, at a Reading Summit, Foorman arrogantly stated, "The teacher variable does not contribute significantly above and beyond the curriculum, so what we have here is a powerful mathematical model." Ohanian counters by stating, "This tenet cuts to the core of the Standardistos argument: Choose the right technique/text/program and any teacher can deliver it. Call me paranoid, but isn't the next step reducing costs by getting an aide to deliver the material?"

In the end, I believe that the Standards movement carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. The bottom line is that it promises way more than it can deliver. It props itself up as a panacea for our problems without having to address the real issues of injustice, inequality, and corruption that extist in our social/political/economic system. Under the velvet glove of the Standards movement lies a corporate iron fist which is intent on snatching our children and feeding them to the industrial-military machine. Ohanian sounds the battle call for teachers, "... we teachers can resist the Standardisto imperative that would turn us into train conductors, programmed to keep our students operating on an ideal schedule devised by a complicity of politicians and bureaucrats. As teachers, we must resist much." 

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