Infaming the Public, Part III: The Rise of Anti-Public Education and Arbitrary Assessment Against Knowledge of Direct Experience

The New York State Education Department says, “Reform can’t wait.” 
“Reform Now” by Kevin Moore,

In Part I, I argued that the public was being rendered infamous via a decades-long campaign to impose mass failure on public schools via the manipulation of academic tests and the results of testing. A key mechanism of imposed mass failure is the use of “cut scores” as policy mechanisms for governing education — arbitrary designations drawn at points in a score distribution marking boundary points between made up ranked proficiency categories. Thus, I argued, there appeared repeated designations of mass public school failure as a result of the policy of manipulating cut scores. I argued this policy of imposed mass failure will increase with the application of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) assessments.

In Part II, I argued that a key aspect of the insurgent’s method is to attack collective memory and the achievements of public education and professional educators so as to make them susceptible to claims and practices they would otherwise out rightly reject. In particular, I exposed the lie behind the hypnotically repeated assertion that “for the first time”, CCSS aligned assessments enable New York to graduate students ready for college or work. But the point was not simply that insurgents are wrong. The point was to argue out the political significance of their method of imposing collective amnesia as their only means for justifying the CCSS initiative. I argued attacks on collective memory aim to disable the public, and that such attacks provide more evidence of the anti-public character of the CCSS and how they are governed.

Here in Part III, I begin by tracing out more the development of what I am now calling the rise of anti-public education. The aim is to counter insurgent claims that private corporate interests serve public aims, and that serving the narrow interests of the global competition warriors is the proper aim for public schools. In fact, both are against the public interest and thus anti-public in nature. Privatized governance mechanisms are forcing, in large measure through the CCSS initiative, nearly all schools to act against the public interest, whether schools remain technically public or not. I root this development in the contradictions of neoliberalism and its demand for a far greater level of social, political and economic inequality than was previously allowed or even possible.

From here I argue that insurgents are imposing via their assessments a form of arbitrary authority rooted in medieval thought: assessments serve to institutionalize the acceptance of arbitrary power against knowledge gained from direct experience. Again, arbitrary cut scores are key.[1] I argue that state officials are openly and eagerly presenting “accuracy” as emanating from them and their beliefs. This represents efforts to institutionalize arbitrary authority over public institutions so as to further emasculate and distort them.

I conclude in a future, unanticipated Part IV of the series by proposing starting points for a modern form of assessment fit to democratic living against the arbitrary power of anti-public education. This last and final part will be “a more happy piece”, I suppose. I promise!

The Rise of Anti-Public Education

Many will take my previous argument of imposed mass failure to be an extension of “the manufactured crisis” thesis made popular by the classic volume by the same name, co-authored by the well-known education researcher and policy analyst, David Berliner. While there is much value in that work, the idea that the “crisis” of public education was manufactured tends to work against a deep understanding of what has been transpiring and why. Thus, I think it is more helpful to examine the attack on public education as a response to something.

I think a key aspect of this has to do with a broad range of economic and political dynamics occurring with what is described as neoliberalism.[2] Among other things, neoliberalism necessitates the system produce much higher levels of social, political and economic inequality than during the post WWII period. This “new” inequality is far beyond that allowed for by the old “meritocracy” and thus is not readily justified by traditional conservatism or kept in check by traditional liberalism. The emergent hyper elite is now working to secure a monopoly over political and economic institutions, especially police and military power. This arrangement cannot be easily fit to the framing political system and is a form of tyranny. This “new” inequality is both sought by and a necessary result of neoliberal reforms over the past four decades. In many ways, the results of neoliberalism do not match its public theoretical form; it is full of contradictions.

Despite their historic role in reproducing social inequality, traditional public schools are not capable of producing and sustaining the new type and intensity of inequality that has emerged; nor are these traditional institutions a capable remedy for this inequality. The education now being developed to sustain this new level and type of inequality, under the guise of reform, is anti-public.

The American system emphasized traditional public education as a means to navigate social tensions (e.g., education as opportunity; religious and cultural “tolerance”, etc.) and thus promoted social “balance”. But neoliberalism does not adhere to the old idea that education should serve to “balance” the social system by tempering inequality[3]

Public institutions, through their modest democratic principals of public accountability, equal access, and protection of some minority rights, and thus the modest social equalization these practices yielded, are nonetheless barriers to dictatorship of the biggest corporate interests that have seized power. Witness how charter school operators and their insurgent advocates work against equal access and public accountability as innovation.

This signifies the content of the new inequality: the erosion of formal declarations of equality in the form of equal access and claim to attend a public school, the erosions of formal declarations of political equality through the elimination of elected forms of school governance replaced with an arrangement where those with the most capital decide, against public will. Long held commitments to (the by no means unproblematic notion of) “meritocracy” are also being eroded as denial of variation in human talent and level of achievement is institutionalized in the CCSSI insistence that all students are taught the same content, the same way and must achieve the same level.

Originally, education did not directly form a part of profit making (capital accumulation). Schools (public ones and even many non-profit privates) stood apart from “the market”.[4] Public schools were to “balance” the “social machinery” as the nineteenth century public school advocate Horace Mann famously said.

Moving these public institutions into the private, for-profit sphere of capital accumulation requires bringing them under the discipline of governance forms appropriate to that purpose. It means eliminating the balance function of traditional public education (temper social, economic inequality). It means eliminating the public function (public opinion; citizenship). The crisis of capital accumulation (broadly observed in the financial crisis leading to the ARRA bailout) requires private interests gain access to public pools of money, which privatization schemes enable, for their own narrow benefit.

Equally important is the manner in which this transformation demands the complete commodification of education: the development of skills and attitudes (outlined in the CCSS) for use by global warriors is now itself a means of acquiring capital. Labor is no longer just assumed to be “there” following years of public schooling. It also appears this anti-public schooling is associated with a move toward forced consumption: iPads, cameras, canned curriculum, testing, databases, etc., are all being mandated, as is associated forms of professional development which in turn demands the purchasing of more of the same type of products by schools. This is imposed consumption of means for education as the factory farming of labor. It is simultaneously a source of profit and a means of labor control, paid for with public funds “leveraged” via private wealth in the form of venture philanthropy (wealth that would have been collected as taxes under older tax codes to support public institutions).

The transformation in the level of inequality required is also evident in the logic of “investing in human capital” that guides insurgents. One invests where one will receive the highest rate of return. When applied to education, this necessitates a view of human beings as varying in worth and potential “value”. This of course violates the basic principle of the inviolability of the human person. Human capital necessitates human beings be viewed as violable, as animals in factory farms (it is of little consolation if individual humans are convinced to view themselves as capital for investment). This is quite a shift from the idea of public education for democratic living accessible to all as a claim. So, for example, special education students are not likely to yield high returns, and so, hedge fund driven charters “wisely” exclude them. (It’s nothing personal.)

In this sense, test scores are the currency of trade in educational stock or “skills portfolios” (again, the CCSSI establishes what these are, and the basis of a “education skills stock market”). Here, again, students are not considered human beings. They are acted upon to extract the biological power that can be deployed in specific ways for insurgent benefits. For example the Core State Standards have students studying HVAC repair manuals (they’re learning to interpret “factual information”). The tests are thus an imposed marker of value at any given point in time and a means for both regulating specific labor segments and guiding decisions as to who is most worthy of further investment (ranking the value of labor at each and every stage). This is in addition to straightforward efforts to make money off the provision of curriculum, professional development, etc., which, by the way, are mostly “aligned” to the above agenda anyway.

It is extremely important to recognize that these attacks occur against public institutions, and especially those institutions with the role of framing and forming public opinion. This is done because insurgents have no legitimate claim to power and necessarily stand against the public interest in favor of a tiny minority.

… Geez, its like a really bad Grimm fairy tale. But we must move on!

Accuracy as Alignment with Authority

Arbitrary assessment means arbitrary authority -- Cartoon by Kevin Moore,
Arbitrary assessment means arbitrary authority — Cartoon by Kevin Moore,

Imposing mass failure and collective amnesia following the massive increase in forms of social inequality enabled the rise of anti-public education. While I had in Part I documented the role of cut scores in infaming the public, I did not attempt to link the imposition of cut scores in this manner to a form of arbitrary authority. The nature of the power emanating from Albany and Washington is arbitrary, and this is evidenced in the use of cut scores to drive “reform.”

Here, arbitrary is used in its political sense, describing actions that are capricious and characteristic of an unrestricted power (in this case, not restricted by any of the forms of public agency), as well as in the scientific sense: the choice of cut score cannot be defended empirically or theoretically, and ultimately this practice falls in line with what has long been derided as “measurement by fiat”.

As one example, suppose a state agency establishes that one has to answer 65 percent of questions correctly to be designated as proficient. There is no empirical or theoretical basis for this (or any other) chosen point, in that no real or meaningful difference between students (outside the effects of the exercise of state power) who manage to answer 64 percent accurately and those who manage to answer 66 percent accurately. There are techniques to work at this problem from the edges, but the ultimate problem of justifying cut scores remains. In other words, the assessment technology currently emphasized by state and federal agencies for use in high stakes decisions does not constitute measurement, and is thus unable to capture the dialectical relationship between quantitative and qualitative change that would enable one to objectively mark a qualitative transition point on a quantitative continuum.[5]

Thus, the exercise of state power absent valid justification — understand that placing human beings in ranked categories of social value on the basis of cut scores is a use of force — must be understood as arbitrary in nature.

This analysis would not be complete if we did not grab some useful material from the Slentz memo that has proved so useful in this series. He writes:

Although we have raised expectations for what students must know and be able to do upon graduation, student performance has not risen sufficiently to meet those expectations. We need more accurate measures of student progress.

It is odd to assert knowledge of a performance level only to bemoan the absence of accurate measures. Really, I wonder how that works! Read politically, however, we can come to understand what is actually being communicated. “Accuracy” is given as alignment with the arbitrary changes in the expectations of the authority.[6] This notion of accuracy should not be confused with the ability of a measuring device to reflect objective qualities of phenomena. The thesis being presented is that exams are accurate if they confirm what those in power believe to be true. The memo would have been a great deal more honest if it simply said: “We have changed what we believe to be success, and we’re demanding everyone comply with what we believe.”[7]

Again, using the same logic, Slentz argues that after NYSED again changed cut scores, a:

more accurate picture showed that only 53% of students in English language arts (ELA) and 61% in math met the State’s 2005 ELA and math standards, down from 77% and 86% the year prior based on the old cut scores. However, this was still not a completely accurate picture of our students’ performance against a trajectory that demonstrates college- and career-readiness; the increase in cut scores was an interim step as we got closer to implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Again, the arbitrary nature of cut scores in a high stakes context yields to an arbitrary use of state power. “Accuracy” is again given as dependent on the standard set by the authority. “We say you must be career and college ready (please forget that we’ve been doing this for years). We determine what that means. If we see too many people passing, we will assert that the measure is inaccurate because we know that performance is much lower because we have established high standards, and we know they are high because passing rates (that we manipulate) are low.”

Arbitrary Assessment Against Knowledge of Direct Experience

I argue below that the aim is to assert the standard as the mediator of experience by authority against knowledge of direct experience. “I impose the standard to impose my will.” This is not a modern view of standards or assessments but instead reminiscent of how things operated in Europe prior to the era of the French Revolution.[8]

Thus, the problem is not only that Slentz and company are acting arbitrarily. A key point is this: setting cut scores, or “benchmarks”, in a high stakes context, is a means by which to impose uniform and centrally directed understandings against professional judgment rooted in direct experience of the practice setting.[9] The illegitimacy and nature of this practice might be most clear if one brings to mind insurance industry protocols that increasingly override, from great physical and institutional distances, the judgment of medical professionals who directly experience and thus come to know those under their care. And, if teachers hold erroneous views about their student’s capacity, the problem is best addressed from within the practice setting itself, rather than by removing the authority of teacher judgment without which teachers cannot function properly.

Yet this is what NYSED and RTTT is now doing. The entire apparatus works to further remove the authority of the teacher and principal in the practice setting and to deny their knowledge derived from the direct experience of the actual work taking place in schools. In place of knowledge of direct experience, insurgents hope to impose their understanding as the only legitimate understanding.

Here is another quote from Slentz:

As such, the Common Core State Standards and accompanying assessments that measure student progress on these standards are closely aligned with the knowledge and skills measured by the NAEP. New York State educators and parents will now have an accurate indicator of how our students are performing and their progress toward college- and career-readiness.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. So, we don’t need new tests if we have the NAEP! And again, accuracy is misused as a concept, hiding arbitrary claims to power. The other troubling component is the assertion that parents and teachers can’t make judgments absent the intervention of the great assessor (all hail Pearson, oops, I mean “the Vendor” as noted in the memo). Watch the inBloom video and notice how every human interaction is to be mediated by a database and a computer controlled by a private firm (see this if you haven’t). The impression is quickly created that teachers, students and principals are forever incapable of knowing their direct experience as a basis for making judgments about their work and what is needed, absent The Vendor (sounds like a great B grade murder mystery).

Thus, in addition to attacking public opinion and collective memory, anti-public insurgents aim to attack direct experience and block knowledge of that experience among those working in the practice setting. This is both repressive and enormously harmful.

What is direct experience? As human act to live together in their historical time, living life as they do, they acquire skills, knowledge and from this, awareness. These things are objective and happen whether or not anyone wants to entertain thinking about them. Direct experience is without mediation, and it cannot be destroyed, only denied, for efforts to attack direct experience are themselves experienced.

Direct experience can be studied and learned from. One of the main reasons for the advance of human civilization is the ability of human beings to come to know and learn from their experiences. This allows human beings living socially as they do to imagine what might improve things, solve a problem, or otherwise think about what could exist but yet does not. Direct experience is the engine of knowledge when consciously reflected upon in a disciplined way. Attacking knowledge of direct experience, that is denying experience as a basis for making judgments and planning work, is a means for disempowerment, and a block to advanced learning. Like attacks on public opinion and collective memory, such acts are political and meant to disable educators and those with experience in schools from opposing the arbitrary nature of the power being put in place as a result of so-called school reform.

(To Be Continued)


  1. “Cut scores” are variously named performance levels, benchmarks, etc. They are suggested when any effort is made to place marks along a distribution of scores (however scaled) to signal changes in quality.
  2. See for example David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.
  3. Some people today still think this idea of “balance” is useful against neoliberalism, and evidence of its operation can be seen in slogans such as “too much” inequality, greed, which presumes there is a “right amount” of inequality, etc. I do not think this nineteenth century notion of “balance” will get us far in the twenty first century.
  4. Note that private schools historically served the purpose of reproducing both a belief system and cultural practice, e.g., Catholic Schools, or constituted a means for reproducing elite social networks (and in many cases, both). They did not serve as means for capital accumulation for investors.
  5. For more on measurement, see the first chapters my book, A Measure of Failure. For an excellent discussion of standards and cut scores, see Gene Glass’s analysis, Standards and Criteria Redux. Also note Carol Burris’s recent discussion regarding NYSED standards for determining “career and college readiness.” She offers more examples. It is important to note, however, that the journal article she sites offers another example of imposed amnesia regarding scientific knowledge about cut scores. This 2013 publication ignores the work of Glass noted above, originally published in the 1970s! A final note is this: many will fight for cut scores as useful tools for non-high stakes purposes. In those contexts, the practice poses far less danger.
  6. The politically repressive content of NYSED requirements that teachers be “calibrated” to state beliefs about student assessment is obvious to many.
  7. Note I had emailed NYSED requesting their “validation” of cut scores on several occasions, never to receive a response. If you read the Glass piece noted in the previous footnote, however, you will find that common “validation” techniques don’t help much!
  8. See the first section of my book, A Measure of Failure.
  9. The slogan “poverty is not an excuse for failure” was an early example of imposing understandings against knowledge of direct experience.

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