Education Reform and the Eternal Failure of the Unimaginative Bureaucratic Mind

In the 2006 film Idiocracy, the U.S. five centuries into the future is suffering crippling crop shortages due to a dust bowl that the main character (a survivor of suspended animation from the present of the film’s opening, around 2005), Private Joe Bauers, discovers is human-made since the nation of idiots has been irrigating those crops with a Gatorade-like sports drink.

This science fiction satire has experienced a resurgence due to many pundits associating the rise of Trump with the film’s extrapolation about humanity becoming more and more a nation of idiots, but for those of us in education, Idiocracy speaks to the most recent era of education reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing.

The human-made dust bowl is the result of an initial false analogy: If the sports drink, they reasoned, is a powerful fluid for human hydration, then it must be an ideal solution to struggling crops needing hydration.

If we unpack this idiotic logic a bit more, we must add that even the initial idea—sports drinks filled with sugar and salt as powerful hydration fluids—is mostly a false belief based on a great deal of clever marketing and gullibility in the consumers.

Before Bauer forces this future of idiots to reimagine their problem in order to rethink their solution, the status quo of hydrating crops with sports drink continues along with the puzzlement among the idiots about why nothing is improving.

So let’s do a little thought experiment with that film in mind.

First, consider this from Rebecca Smith:

In the late 1800s, the United States was feeling the impact of the industrial revolution. Influenced by Taylorism and the desire for scientific management, statistics and measurement were evolving as objective methods used to evaluate and systematically organize information. Education was swept up in the measurement and statistical movement. Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where ‘knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity’ (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision….

To [Thordike], the connection between science, measurement, and human behavior was clear (Cremin, 1964). Lewis Terman published the Binet-Simon IQ Test in 1916; this test provided the context for psychologists to assess abilities, explain differences in students’ performance, and improve schools (Chapman, 1988). Standardized academic tests measure performance in the areas of handwriting, maths, and reading. Data from these tests offered superintendents, teachers, parents, or pupils ‘guidance in many different sorts of decisions and actions’ including ‘the fate of pupils, the value of methods, and the achievement of school systems’ (Thorndike, 1918, pp. 19, 22). Although Thorndike used the term ‘product’ instead of ‘data’, concepts such as rigor, reliability, and precision became part of educational discourse, measuring unseen changes in human beings. Intelligence had become objectified in numbers. The quantification of children’s intelligence, demographic characteristics, and school performance resulted in columns of numbers compared, contrasted, and evaluated in the United States. As the scientific gaze turned towards children, they became classified, compared, and evaluated according to numbers (Cannella, 1997). (pp. 3, 4)

Just a decade after this film and almost a century after Thorndike, in 2016, consider this:

In the latest international comparison of student achievement, public schools in the United States ranked no better than 24th in the world. But the public schools of Massachusetts had few peers.

Perhaps Massachusetts has something to teach the rest of the nation.

Well, unless you listen to Massachusetts, where researchers determined that two-thirds of the state’s effort at education reform has been a failure:

The evidence we have gathered strongly suggests that two of the three major “reforms” launched in the wake of the 1993 law — high-stakes testing and Commonwealth charter schools — have failed to deliver on their promises.

On the other hand, the third major component of the law, providing an influx of more than $2 billion in state funding for our schools, had a powerfully positive impact on our classrooms. But we will show that, after two decades, the formula designed to augment and equalize education funding is no longer up to the task.

So what we have here is an idiocracy of education reform, a failure of imagination to reconsider the problem and then to rethink solutions.

The U.S. need not idealize Finland or Massachusetts—or let’s not forget in 1962, it was the Swiss.

And the relentless commitment to accountability based on ever-new standards and ever-new tests is no different than the idiots continuing to hydrate crops with sports drink.

Like sports drinks, testing is inherently a sham, and our refusal to step away from a paradigm that has never worked despite countless efforts at making it work is our own version of a very real and current Idiocracy.

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