The Political Significance of the King’s Math

A “Skinner Box“: How apt this image is when “food dispenser” is replaced with Race to the Top, and the “electric grid” replaced with the words “Common Core Aligned Assessments”? Duncan and King can be the “loudspeaker”!

Last week I offered a “close read” of New York State Education Commissioner King’s memo outlining various plans for revisions to the state’s testing regime. The memo argued that “Career and College Readiness” was the aim driving reform in New York State. I argued that, however it is measured, being “career and college ready” is not properly considered an aim, but rather a level of development. The vision driving King and the national education policy agenda, I suggested, was premised on an aimless form of education modeled on the basic operating principals of the volition-free product known as the computer. Ultimately, I argued, the problem was not with testing per se, but rather, the aim such testing serves and reflects. Working to better implement the Regents Reform Agenda is to accept a factory model of education premised on humans as things to be sold on the world market. As is factory production, such education is, indeed, rigorous (inflexible, rigid, likened to a corpse).

Here, I offer another critique, one that begins with the last paragraph of King’s memo.[1] In that paragraph, King tries to deny that New York’s testing requirements are onerous, after practically admitting as much in the previous paragraphs. The section reads:

There are approximately 64,800 minutes in the typical school year. Each year, a maximum of 540 of those minutes are devoted to State tests in Grades 3-8 ELA and math – less than 1% of the school year. It’s what we do with the other roughly 64,000 minutes that will determine how successful our students become.

One teacher wrote me the following in response to King’s calculations:

This is not true. First, it’s selective to figure in only ELA and Math and not mention all the other standardized tests that students have to take, not to mention pre-tests, etc., etc. Second, it’s also sneaky to compare that time to the whole day — the 64,800 comes from 6 hours a day for 180 days. But please, are we going to include lunch and specials and time between classes in the comparison? But, it’s also just wrong. The ELA is three days, three hours each, and so is the Math. So, it’s 3 days x 3 hours x 60 minutes = 540, yes, but for each, and thus it is 1080 minutes for Math and ELA. And, he didn’t explain his answer, and he didn’t check his arithmetic, so he gets a one, right? Are they kidding?

There’s is significance in King not offering a valid calculation or even explaining his answer, beyond denoting him not ready for college or career!

Might his offering reflect the content of the entire project? The authority tells you that this is the answer; you must offer the correct explanation, as determined by the authority, but the authority is above the law, in that there is no accountability for the authority offering an incorrect answer nor accountability in the sense that no explanation (accounting) of how the answer was arrived at is offered. He and the Regents are simply not accountable as the rest of us are; we are to be accountable to them but they are not accountable to us. All they need to do is offer a one-liner every now and then, as King did at the end of the ninth paragraph: “We welcome your input.” This suggests a political order where when the authority says so, the authority’s saying so, makes it so. The experience of parents and teachers across the state is not, apparently, “input” the King computer is capable of “reading,” and therefore, that experience does not exist.

So, King’s practice here is questionable, both in terms of the validity of his knowledge claim, and in terms of its anti-democratic political content. With this in mind, let’s examine a few more sections of the memo, from the mathematical point of view! King writes:

We are exploring options to reward districts when students demonstrate proficiency on both traditional Regents Exams and an optional high quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) assessment.

It’s beyond me how imposing more tests — Regents and CTE exams — constitutes evidence that the Regents are limiting testing to only those “necessary to inform effective decision-making.” As pointed out last time, that quoted clause opens up space for more testing under the guise of limiting it. It is an arbitrary construction. Again, the political theory at work here is this: truth originates with the actions of authority, “I speak, therefore it is.” “My interpretation of necessary is what is necessary.” He continues:

We are also looking at future funding options to allow us to eliminate field testing for multiple-choice test questions and reduce the time necessary for field tests of onstructed response questions.

So, Pearson has being doing some of its own calculations. Take the public concern with too much testing, and the particular anger at the field testing, and use it as a means to increase the bottom line by getting your friends in government to request more public dollars to be transferred into your account! Now that’s career-ready thinking-inside-the-ledger!

But possibly the most significant quantitative move indicated by King’s memo is this, which foreshadows the subject of Part 3 of the series on Big Data, and directly relates to this post’s featured image. Keeping in mind the above paragraphs insistence on rewards, let’s study what King has to say:

Using Race to the Top funding, SED will offer grants to local school districts to support the principle that “Teaching is the Core.” Grant recipients would commit to review all local assessment practices to ensure that all local tests help inform instruction and improve student learning. And grant recipients would receive funding to support high quality Common Core instruction and classroom activities that support evidence-based decision making (including multi-disciplinary projects, research papers, oral presentations, etc.).

Aside from the fact that this text is a frank admission that school districts under the leadership of King are not using tests to improve student learning, the solution to failed leadership is more competitive grants to adopt narrow quantitative models for “driving decisions” — i.e., using “rewards” to control behavior (the parallel to which are of course punishments).

This policy regime and mode of governance is premised on radical behaviorism. District leaders are to be conditioned like rats in a Skinner Box, so that they “learn” to accept and respond to the demands of the regime. This is not mere bribery, its governing by operant conditioning techniques. I’ll end with this: radical behaviorism explicitly rejects notions of human agency and human dignity, rendering them fanciful hallucinations of bodies not disciplined by rigor.


  1. Note here that critique means not so much to criticize, but rather to lay bare the hidden logic or assumptions of something.

2 Comments The Political Significance of the King’s Math

  1. Chris Cerrone November 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Mark, In addition to the quote from the teacher about the “actual time” on testing, I would also reply to King that would a teacher, esp one with 8yr olds, ever have third graders sit quietly on a lesson, task, etc for 70+minutes? If a teacher was observed forcing children to sit quietly doing individual classwork, tests, etc for 3 days in a row for 70-90 minutes how would that evaluation go? Making young students take the tests is poor pedagogy in itself.

  2. Mark Garrison November 6, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Chris, great point, which makes the rat-in-cage even more apt.

    I’m obviously fixated on the behaviorist connection with current policy, and I’m wondering, based on your comment, are their methods that “work” at getting young children to sit for long periods? Do such efforts always fail?

    That is to say: Is *this* the test — to find methods, Big-Data driven, camera monitoring systems for conditioning out of children their human agency???

    See this:

    Gates loves’ em — and has used them and funded them. Yup, all in the name of “feedback.”

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