For most of my adult life, in and out of school, I have focused my intellectual efforts on matters of politics and ideology. Interest in education as an institution emerged out of my preoccupation with the study of social continuity and change. As schooling became an important agent of reproducing our social order, and at the same time, the proscribed method for addressing all manner of social problems (such as social inequality), it became an important instance in the dynamic of continuity and change. With national states increasingly focusing their attention on educational institutions over time, making them both the object of ridicule and preferred tool for addressing social problems, their political function is unmistakable. Yet this function is contradictory and difficult to grasp, and most importantly, frequently obscured in both education policy debates and research. It is the political functions of education reforms that are of particular interest to me.
I have published articles in the areas of educational technology, assessment and measurement, with numerous presentations at professional conferences offering political critiques of “school safety” and “character education initiatives,” theorizing political and human rights and the significance and transformation of the public/private division in society. Current research projects include the study of the rise of for-profit colleges and universities and the political significance of educational restructuring in post-Katrina New Orleans. My book, A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing, was released in September 2009.
A Measure of Failure asks the timely question of how and why standardized tests became the ubiquitous standard by which educational achievement and intelligence are measured. Drawing on the insights of historical sociology, it articulates a heuristic where the setting of standards is explored as a function of political authority, bound up with the political theory and social values of that authority. Standardized tests are thus classified as political tools for ranking human worth and legitimizing social distinction. Their origin rests in the need to contend with the contradiction between our society’s declarations of formal equality and the reality of vast inequality. Public schools and our present assessment methods originate as methods for mediating this tension.
Tracing the work of two leaders in the development and use of standardized tests, case studies of Horace Mann and Alfred Binet are presented. These cases from the mid 19th and early 20th century challenge beliefs still held today, namely that standardized testing originated to efficiently measure the inputs and outputs of schooling. By marking then existing arrangements as failures, each case reveals how standardized tests were tools used to institute and justify substantive changes in how and who governed schools. Born in this crucible of failure, the book argues, testing plays a similar role today. By marking public institutions as failures under the guise of leaving “no child behind” reformers are privatizing a quintessential public good.
The book concludes with an invitation to develop standards that assist students, teachers, and parents in assessing their work with the understanding that such standard-setting is inescapably political, and that in order for it to serve the common interest, it must be premised on the inherent rights, dignity and worth of all human persons.
I hold both a BA and MA in sociology and a Ph.D. in the Social Foundations of Education, with a concentration in the Sociology of Education. Since 1995, I have worked in various higher education institutions, serving in a variety of research, administrative and faculty roles. I am currently Professor of Education Policy & Research in the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at D’Youville College, Buffalo, New York. All views expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
I enjoy public speaking about the issues discussed here and welcome contacts.