Infaming the Public, Part IV: Public Self-Consciousness and Assessment for Democratic Renewal

In Parts I-III, I outlined the dangers and significance of the attacks on public education and in particular the anti-public character of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.I outlined a process of infaming the public that included three elements: (1) the imposition of mass failure on public schools via the manipulation of standardized test data and especially “cut scores” as means to discredit the public and render it illegitimate, (2) erasure from public memory the fact that public education was a means for realizing interests and was an achievements of educators within the limits of their social contexts, that New York State has for a long time been preparing high school graduates for “career and college” and finally, (3) the nature and origin the present anti-public education agenda. Here I argued that insurgents are transforming education into the factory farming of discrete skills (Common Core as “product specifications”) for future extraction by the global competition warriors, as well as a source of mega profit. This process relied on organizing assessment against the authority of knowledge gained from direct experience and for the acceptance of arbitrary authority rooted in medieval thought (truth originating from the proclamations of state officials). Taken together I argued that these constitute civil death, the loss of rights and a condition for tyranny.

Here in part IV, I argue there exists a new public emerging in the movement against anti-public education. After outlining what I see to be its most important features, I argue for the validity of assessment and summation rooted in the authority of individual and collective experience as key to building a new public school movement.

The Public Strikes Back

“When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” — Garrison Keillor

Recent events reveal a growing movement against the wreckers of public education. This movement, active for decades, has many facets. But two interrelated developments are, I believe, new and common across differences.[1]

First, there is the emergence of a self-conscious public as a political force with legitimate claims and increasing organizational capacity to realize some immediate demands. Common thinking is evident among people and groups; the capacity to inform is growing; unity among diverse political factions stands on the non-partisan demand to have a say. Leaders have emerged from among students, teachers, parents and others in their community, along with an array of prominent education leaders and researchers. Together there is a new energy and the energy is becoming contagious, working to counter the imposed paralysis of fear and despair. A variety of tactics are being deployed in concert, with each taking her place as best she can. School boards are standing up. A new unionism is in sight.

Consciousness of itself as a force has given this public confidence. The strength that comes with collective conviction has given rise to the will to defend common interests against anti-public forces.

While there are significant ideological differences among the those making up this political force, its formation as a public acting in favor of the general interests rests on the second development: the acceptance of the existence of a definite source of the attacks on public education, and an increasing focus on the central role of decision-making power belonging to parents, educators and their communities against the networked and organized private monopoly corporate interests and their representatives in various branches of government. Indeed, this may be the era of accountability, but not as insurgents had hoped.

These wrecking forces have largely been identified, and their usurpation of power against the public is increasingly targeted and opposed. “Monolithic” or not, we know more about who they are, and how they work. Usurper denial of the most basic of public rights, for example, to see exams used to grade students, teachers and schools, is being opposed. Parents have “pulled the trigger” on corporate scams. Insurgents’ violation of privacy rights will not be accepted and the opposition to the inBloom private data warehouses has served to rally and symbolize public opinion against the anti-public education project. Increasingly, wreckers such as Michelle Rhee are targeted, not merely as ideologues whom we disagree with, but as criminals who must and will be held accountable and as symptomatic of the failure of corporate school reform. Historical forces have been unleashed which billionaires cannot buy off.

Silly debates about conspiracy or the “upside of reform” no longer distract this public as it focuses on defending the principles of public education. Knowledge gained from the direct experience of practical politics and living in this historical context is leading to awareness of a turning point and thus a sense of urgency.

It is important to understand the dynamics unleashed as a result of the self-conscious public with a growing will and capacity to defend itself and make claims. State violence and private forms of subversion will be used against the self-conscious public. Recent examples include Gene Glass, Barbara Madeloni, Randy Turner, the Barber family and Mr. Ratto’s ordeal (also see the now classic case of George Schmidt). These attacks will increase. What is striking is the spirit of resistance that has followed each attack. This resistance signifies an important characteristic of the emerging public. Its self-consciousness and confidence converts the negative energy of each attack into strength: mutual aid and the expression of the limitless potential of human beings animated by convictions rooted in the defense of common interests. This is now an objective development, a model and thus force of history. It is a public standard of conduct for contending with anti-public education.

It is the achievement of this emerging public agent informing itself, that is the main victory to date. The “billionaires boys club” may be on the defensive at the moment, as some argue, but the boys have worked for many decades to get to this point; they’re not going away. And the objective social conditions that allowed for their usurpation still exist.

And so, it is imperative to understand that this will be a long haul. Principles for advancing the public interest relative to the question of assessment need to be elaborated.

Assessment and Summation: Building Blocks for Democratic Living

One of the tragedies that accompany the rise of anti-public education is the emasculation, distortion and otherwise obfuscation of the meaning of words. While few even use the word summation (it seems the powers-that-be wish us never to sum-up our experiences), measurement and assessment are carelessly littered throughout the media.

The obviously not-yet-college ready “leaders” in DC and elsewhere can be heard speaking of  “assessment tests”, or ensuring that “the standards” are used to “assess the tests.” Often, insurgents use assessment as a synonym for information or data (which are both presented as universally and abstractly good yet easily ignored when needed). Assessments are rendered as objective, as measurements are objective. And while the word “measurement” is frequently used, none of what transpires under that moniker in education meets the criteria of measurement.[2] These notions are incorrect and disorienting. What we need to talk about is assessment.

Commonly associated with educational endeavors, the word assessment means to judge the quality of something. Such judgment is a uniquely human endeavor; it reflects culture, ideology, and of course, differences in political power. It is value-laden, as its referent is “the good” and the question of “value”.

For almost the duration of their 600 years in use, the words assess and assessment referred to taxation, tributes and fines. I’m confident it is not lost on readers that people are feeling over “taxed” by current assessments. And, as this taxation accompanies a loss of control over educational institutions, we might reasonably demand: no assessment without representation. Maybe we should have an assessment tea party (oh, but NYSED requires private shredding companies for that!). Our rallying cry might be: assessment by, of and for the people. The point is, the more conscious individual and collective assessments are, and the more the problem of interests is laid bare, the better-prepared people are to democratically participate in society.

It is not until the nineteenth century that assessment is used in the general sense as a synonym for estimation or evaluation, often being synonymous with the tool used to make the judgment (e.g., test). Thus the modern notion: “To evaluate (a person or thing); to estimate (the quality, value, or extent of), to gauge or judge.”

Assessment thus means to judge, and usurpers of all stripes know that once it is made clear that something is a judgment, it can be challenged (appealed in court, alternative judgments argued out in public, etc.). Judgments often reflect the interests of those doing the judging. Admitting this yields to establishing means for impartial and non-partisan assessment; denying it and playing the scientific objectivity card is a sure move to cloak institutionalized bias and arbitrary forms of power. Thus, John King’s claim that “65 percent of students who start ninth grade [are] unprepared,” is a mere judgment, and a bad one at that. Insurgents like King daily struggle to render their acts as objective and thus unchallengeable, as Kings channeling The Truth. His judgments, as all human judgments, are fallible, value-laden, and partisan if democratic norms are not upheld (such as those used to block corruption).

Thus, assessment is connected to issues of power and social structure. The fight against oppressive forms of assessment (e.g., “high stakes testing”) suggests that democratic forms of assessment would look different; if democratic education is required in democratic societies, it would therefore be expected that democratic education would adopt assessment practices that support that grand purpose. The corollary is that blocking students, educators and members of the public from making assessment (by keeping tests and data secret, for example) is a block to each being political: the act of judging connotes power, status and agency.

Summation is far less common in public discourse, but it needs to be given a central place, especially as current public institutions are so directly challenged. Summation means to “sum up” a set of experiences that can be constituted as a totality; it means to produce “a summary” of key points of evidence with the aim of drawing conclusions. Democratic culture encourages members to sum-up their experience, especially with respect to key endeavors such as public education, so that they can decide future actions to take. In this sense, summation is a key part of decision-making processes, and thus should be part of a democratic culture’s lexicon. Anti-democratic and anti-public forces increasingly block summation from being public or use disinformation to disorient the  public (e.g., test scores prove “public education has failed”). Like assessment, summation is connected to interests, just as closing statements in a court of law represent both Plaintiffs and Defendants. Denial of these partisan interests is a sure way to ensure they remain unchecked. This too is a condition for tyranny.

In the present circumstance, where so few of the reins of power rest in people’s hands, it is important to affirm from where knowledge and power is to be found as a basis for nourishing the movement against anti-public education.

Assessment and Summation of Direct Experience as a Means to Gain Knowledge and Assert Interests

The problem of institutions against knowledge of direct experience and democratic living is very old. One aspect of the problem goes like this:

Teacher: Josh, how did you do on the mid-term?

Josh: You tell me.

Josh just spent hours taking a test, and despite what came out of his mouth, he had a “direct experience”. Yes, his retort signifies resentment. But the experience is in his brain. And the resentment reflects the successful teaching of our institutions: ignore your experience and supplant it with what the authority says. This is assessment against knowledge of direct experience, and examples are readily found in every sphere of social life. Such practices work against the active engagement of human beings in their society.

While respect for professional authority and judgment is important and should be promoted, Josh will need to have his own assessment if he wishes to challenge his teacher’s assessment! And, isn’t it often the case that both teacher and student learn a great deal about their work together when their assessments differ or even align? The fact is, Josh’s possible self-assessment is a basis for independent action and challenge to claims regarding the status of his skills, level of knowledge, etc. It is also a basis for making claims for more help, to advance in the curriculum, etc. The same analysis could be presented for a teacher with respect to her evaluation, to parents, etc.

While seemingly a small and insignificant interaction, writ large it raises the question, on what basis is a challenge to a socially sanctioned designation to take place? Thus a self-assessment is a basis for making claims and is thus political. A society that values rights will prepare the young to defend those rights. Being able to make judgments about one’s own work and the work of others prepares people to defend themselves and to make claims.[3]

The arrangements now being put into place—extreme test secrecy, privately controlled data warehouses, and the privately controlled Common Core initiative itself—are means to block the public, and especially students, parents and educators, from being able to make judgments about education independent of the assertions of those who have usurped power. As assessment is privatized, so to is the decision making. We are told the tests are better; yet a key basis for systematically challenging that assertion has been removed. We are told the ELA and Math assessments in New York State were aligned to the Common Core; yet we are blocked from systematically examining that assertion.

Blocking the public from making these assessments independently is a move to block the public from holding government accountable to the public. This is an expression of tyranny. Pearson is not merely contracted by New York State to make tests; it is a worldwide force making decisions about the content of schooling and how schooling should be viewed and evaluated, with no public accountability. It and its allies are not merely interested in profit, they are also keenly interested control (which of course enables even more profit).

Principles for Democratic Renewal

Assessment and summation constitute building blocks of democratic living. They affirm the validity of knowledge gained from individual and collective experience. This is a basis for conscious participation in society and for resolving conflict and solving problems together. Democratic living requires definite forms and philosophies of assessment and summation as means for developing capacities and outlooks for self-governance.

In fact, if schools were restructured along the lines I’m thinking here, our not-so fictitious student Josh would have answered the teachers question quite differently. He would have been learning throughout school, with his peers and his teachers, to systematically reflect upon the work they are taking up together. Thus I see two important principles of democratic assessment:

(1) Educational judgment should be about the work of education, and individual roles should be assessed from the point of view of that work. 

(2) The value of human beings must not be judged; democratic assessment insists, a priori, that all humans have inherent value, dignity and rights. Humans do not vary in their worth. They do vary in their abilities and contributions; yet this variation need not produce the inequality we see in society today.[4]

Taken together this means democratic assessment cannot be humiliating. Thus, notice how these principles are the opposite of the privatizers’ philosophy of “value added”. This outlook presumes: (1) that teachers and students are isolated individuals who can be meaningfully separated from the social contexts in which they live and learn, and, (2) that teachers “add more value” to some students than others, and thus that some students are more valuable than other students.[5] This is the anti-human logic of “human capital” theory, and it is wreaking havoc on schools across the globe.

Few seem to have noted that value-added guru William L. Sanders was part of “what one political insider called the education privatization brain trust. This group included Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and Secretary of Education under President Bush, David Kearns, the Chief Executive Officer of IBM, and William Sanders, Professor at the University of Tennessee among others.”[6] In this sense, privatization is not “bad” simply because it robs public funds and directs schools to serve narrow interests; insurgents bring with them an entire outlook that is harmful to the very essence of education itself.

Thus, the hyper-individualized and harmfully competitive bureaucratized “assessment” systems have to give way to teachers, students, parents and others learning to systematically make judgments about the work they have engaged in. (And I think it is fine for them to use math to do so!) That is, the work is the curriculum, the teaching and learning, the manner in which in-school and school-community interactions are structured. Does this mean students should never be tested or that teachers should never be evaluated? No. The issue is the need to change the entire mind-set that guides assessment in education, and work against the ideological pollution of Microsoft’s “Rank Stacking” and other anti-social corporate schemes that have for far too long dictated how the public is to think about education.

This change in mind set requires that assessment should not simply be about education, but part of education. The power to judge is rooted in participation in that which should be assessed. If I participate (and thus have an experience), I have a claim to make judgments and advocate based on those judgments. I should learn to draw on the experience and knowledge of others in drawing final conclusions. Thus, students should be taught to make their own assessments, to study and learn from their experiences, and to study and learn from experts in the given field. The most effective school building leaders inspire and support this kind of reflection among teachers.

A Call for the Public Summation of Public Education

Self-consciousness emerges from assessment and the roads ahead are made clearer through summation of experience and work over time. This holds true for the education of an individual child or a social movement. Thus, I believe an important task of the work to counter anti-public education is work for a public summation of public education in the United States from the point of view of the problems faced today. So-called reformers have been unable and in fact are dead set against doing just this. At least since A Nation at Risk (and even dating back to Horace Mann), the prevailing method has been to include “only those facts we agree with.” No more.

Thus while this summation must not ignore the past inequalities and well-documented and serious problems with public education, it needs to focus on identifying the achievements and wisdom resulting from this experiment that can serve future generations and the construction of new institutions that serve the public interest.


  1. I think readers should explore the possibility of an increasing gulf between official news reports about factions among the people—so-called conservatives and liberals, left and right—and what politically self-identified folks are saying in the comments. A good example is the disconnect between this report about a protest against the Common Core standards in Oklahoma and what readers say about that event in the comments. This “official” rendering of and elite support for “the official left” and “the official right” will be used to divide and block unified public opinion.
  2. Suffice it to say that standardized tests and similar technologies do not meet the criteria of being isomorphic; see my book, A Measure of Failure, for a full discussion, one that is beyond the scope of this post.
  3. Although lengthy, there is much value in this examination of the problems related to “measurement” in education.
  4. See my book, A Measure of Failure, for more on this, and for the significance of the confusion between ability and worth. Briefly, schools should not be in the business of imposing a moral order on the young on the basis of academic prowess where those who excel at, say, math are designated as morally superior, that is, assertions unconsciously reflected in the moral language of “good” students, as opposed to students who did a good job. This is not mere semantics, but discourse that reflects the use of force to place individuals in social hierarchies. I also think Dick Schutz was on to something when he said we should “test the instruction” , or curriculum, not students (he didn’t mean VAMs or anything like that either.
  5. Note that the problem of isolating individual teacher effects is not mainly a statistical problem that will eventually be solved by clever mathematicians and advanced computer processing power; it is premised on a false understanding of social reality and inherently flawed. This does not mean we cannot or should not evaluate teachers; it does mean “value-added” apparatuses are an inherently flawed basis for doing so.
  6. Burch, Hidden Markets, 2009, p. 5.

2 Comments Infaming the Public, Part IV: Public Self-Consciousness and Assessment for Democratic Renewal

  1. Dino May 2, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Might I suggest that a theme in need of summation concerns cooperation and decision making. Despite a heavy emphasis on individualism and competition in society and in education, I think summing up how people have worked together to solve problems and learn presents both developments as well as needs which can carry us forward. The recent forum was encouraging in identifying the need to be proactive, as well as emphasizing the compassionate spirit which guides educators and administrators. I think elaborating on the art and science of cooperation as a guide to our activity and how we work together to be the decision makers is key. We need decision making power, and I think summing up our experience together, discussing and setting our aims together, planning together and carrying out our plans together is needed. Yes this could just mean our “lesson plans”, but really is also about the education system as a whole. Nobody wants to carry out irrational orders from above, whether its students, parents, teachers, administrators, or school boards.

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