Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Objects of Education

If you've ever watched The Wire, or you're interested in education, you might like to read "Political Geographies of the Object," a quite interesting analysis about the way the show presents “the test” and schools. (Contact me, I can set you up with the whole article--I've pasted in the section on the test below.)

Preceding the discussion of the test, the authors explain “object-oriented philosophy.”  Basically, they contend that objects—wiretaps, cell phones, standardized tests—have potent capacity to affect behavior, relationships, and especially power.  As best I can tell, objects both empower and constrain actions, and the authors are particularly concerned with how objects shape “stateness” and expressions of state authority in the lives of people.  The wiretap itself, for instance, was first used in the 1930s, and the court initially said that conversations were not protected “things” (so the absence of a warrant did not invalidate those initial taps).  When the court overturned this decision in the 1960s, the authors observe, it was effectively acknowledging that conversations are protected “things.”  The wiretap caused a reconsideration of what a conversation is and how those things may or may not be governed by state authority and power.  In other words, the object (wiretap) caused a reconsideration of the conversation as “thing,” which caused a review of state power and behavior.  Along the way, the wiretap and the conversation moved to a status as “object” that requires understanding and evaluating their nature and role in the power relationships between the state and the people.

The authors point out that the show makes a similar analysis of the standardized test….

From the article:
The test
Surveillance technologies like wiretaps and cameras are perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit, the most obvious tools in facilitating a state effect. The mundane and routinized school test of Season 4, however, is perhaps the most potent of all objects on The Wire. In the process of examination to determine competency, a test elicits excitement, hope, determination, confidence, and even hubris; it also upsets stomachs, causes anxiety and headaches, euphoria and suicide. A test may evoke strong emotions, but it achieves more: the test e and its allies e increasingly organizes and cultivates a state effect in the lives of children. Tests restrict the exchange of information between teachers and students to a circumscribed set of possible connections and pathways, standardizing the discovery of knowledge.

The test, too, is an object. The reduction of a test, however, to its brute materiality --pens and paper, or computers and mice-- completely misses the action that the test itself mobilizes in the world. An object like the test doesnt replace the humanas the sole explanandum of stateness (any more than the human is able to fully produce the state effect); rather it enlarges it, opens it up, and sees power as it is performed in action, constantly made and remade by the bits and pieces of the world. While educators design and create the test, tests are also autonomous, able to transform their creatorsthrough the (metaphysical) conditions they set in motion. This is the reverse adaptationthat Langdon Winner (1977, p. 229) describes as the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available [technological] means.

Over the past 25 years, standardized tests have reversed engineered the US public educational system. The Season 4 test is a simulacrum of the mandated achievement test that emerged in response to the 1983 report of the US National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk. The report warned that if the country were to remain economically competitive at the inter- national level, the skills of the nations workforce would have to improve dramatically. By 2001, the standardized achievement test became the cornerstone of the Bush Administrations No Child Left Behind policy. Nearly all US states have reset content and performance standards, intended to enforce more rigorous teaching and learning expectations, through new systems of school and teacher accountability for test scores (Hurst, Tan, Meek, & Sellers, 2003).

In Season 4, administrators, teachers and students, textbooks, classrooms, and the teachers lounge at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School are pulled into the tests force field: shaping how lessons are taught and ultimately reinforcing the already limited options of these underclass students from inner city Baltimore. Not only is the test deployed to assess the capabilities of students but it also becomes, by association, a test of Tilghman (as an institution) and of the teachers (and their ability to teach effectively). As such, the test becomes one of a multitude of objects (including books, computers, pencils, uniforms, hall passes, school lunches, etc) that collaborate to affect how the students relate to each other and to their teachers and how the teachers relate to each other and to administrators.

Importantly, the test also resists the aims of its original formulation. Based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education, the test instead tends mostly to measure how well students are trained to take it. Moreover, the incentives for continued improvement of student scores has caused many states to actually lower their official standards. One result of this variability in standards was identified in a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (2007), which reported that the differences in the fifty statesobserved test scores were largely due to differences in the stringency of each states standards.

The paradoxical relationship between testing and learning is demonstrated in The Wire through the character of Prez, who by Season 4 has left the police force and now teaches math at Tilghman. By mid-season, after some false starts, Prez actively engages the students in math exercises that encourage them to use their knowledge of the streets and the illicit economies in which many of them operate. Students are ecstatic: they solve probabilities using dice games, building confidence, joking around, and working in teams. But during later episodes, Prez is increasingly pressured to switch from this organic form of learning to working through abstract problems e phrased in the dry language of the Maryland State Assessment test e as test daygets nearer. In a scene from episode 9, assistant principal Marcia Donnelly informs Tilghman teachers that they all must dedicate class time to help students prepare for the reading comprehension section of the upcoming state test, in order to raise the schools overall test score. Even Prez, as a math teacher, must take on reading comprehension. In ensuing scenes, his students grow bored and restless while he attempts to instruct them on how to correctly answer test questions through reference to material on classical Rome. Unsurprisingly, the topic has no intuitive resonance with the students and it soon becomes clear that the lesson is a terrible failure, signaling as it does, future failure. In episode 4, Howard BunnyColvin --a former police major who eventually becomes a field researcher on a University of Maryland grant studying repeat offenders among Baltimore youth e makes a cogent observation:

Bunny: Kids right. This is bullshit. 
Parenti: Test material doesnt exactly speak to their world. 
Bunny: Yeah, it dont speak loud to mine, neither.

Bunnys terse observation recognizes the test as having the power to configure learning as a theoretical activity rather than a situated educational moment in the lived experience of the students. As viewers, we can also see the test at work organizing a set of expectations about students as laborers-in-training being prepared to participate in an imagined future workforce and a way of life that simply isnt open to them.

Perhaps the most forceful aspect of the test is its ability to produce statistics that script the future of the schools, its students, and its teachers. The Wire demonstrates how the test unleashes a catalog of statistics that drive teacher and course preparation; circulate between the classroom and the teacherslounge; and cause anguish and disagreements as well as resignation and defiance. US educational research has demonstrated how statistics are a highly problematic measure of achievement (Popham, 1999) forcing students to become consumers of certified knowledge rather than guided producers of enabling knowledge and informed action. As research by Porter-Magee (2004) found, in the United States the standardized test and the resultant focus on achievement statistics also inhibits teacher quality by constraining the autonomy of teachers as situated pedagogues and turning them instead into agents of mass production. Even more powerfully, the statistics open or close doors to student futures, producing myriad practices that in most cases aggravate rather than solve their problems of underachievement. Again, Bunny Colvin, in episode 10, makes a telling point about the test in a conversation with his University of Maryland boss, Dr. David Parenti.

Bunny: Hold on, hold on. Look, what hes saying is this: you can put a textbook in front of these kids. Put a problem on the blackboard, teach em every problem on some statewide test -- it wont matter, none of it. Cuz they not learninfrom our world, they learninfrom theirs. And they know exactly what it is they training for and exactly what it is everyone expects them to be.

The test -- and the subsequent statistics that facilitate its generalizable meaning -- serves to draw a boundary around teaching and learning practices. It enables some ideas to be thought while others become peripheral, outside the bounds of legitimate knowledge. The result is that the subjects being taught in school get narrowed down to put more emphasis on the subjects being tested, which inevitably constrains the studentsrange of knowledge, not to mention their confidence and expectations. Ultimately, as Guisbond and Neill (2004, p. 13) argue, the emphasis on the standardized test in the United States ignores real factors that impede improvements in teaching and learning, such as large class sizes, inadequate books, and outmoded technology, as well as nonschool factors like poverty and high student mobility. These problems are no more apparent than at Tilghman, where students like Dukie face homelessness and Michael has to care for his little brother (even picking him up at parent- teacher night) and drug-addicted mother, while scrimping together a household budget from welfare.

The test also reconfigures the spaces in which it operates. While it would be exaggerating the power of the test to suggest that it determines everything that happens in the middle school class- room, it would be equally problematic to ignore the profound effects and affects it produces. When the mode of teaching shifts from students solving math problems by relating them to calculations that are a part of their daily lives to one where they are expected to solve standard abstract word problems based on unfamiliar normative assumptions, the classroom becomes a site of frustration and boredom where pleasure, excitement, enthusiasm are curtailed along with improvisation, creativity, and questioning. Not only does the test shape the intimate spaces of the classroom, it also affects e as Guisbond and Neill (2004) contend with respect to US education more generally e the ability of all schools to attract teachers, with low achieving schools in poor neighborhoods being doubly disadvantaged. Because academic progress is measured through the test e with all the problems that attend to it such as cultural bias, failure to measure higher-order thinking, and the problem of measurement error -- an urban geography of uneven educational achievement results.

As Season 4 reveals, when the schools in the largely white and more affluent suburban Baltimore County get compared to the schools in the largely black and lower socioeconomic neighbor- hoods of the city of Baltimore, a geography of achievement and failure becomes solidified, condemning some schools to further impoverishment while others grow more affluent in resources. As well, the test produces a hypothetical and homogeneous national space of content standards and curricular preferences while the sites of its actual application are ones where heterogeneity proliferates. The test generates a force field that reorients bodies, other objects, and spaces e all of which must, in the words of Assistant Principal Donnelley, teach to the test. Encountering the test in The Wire is to recognize it not as a benign entity that neutrally proceeds along innocuous pathways; instead, it activates, sorts, elevates, rejects, overwhelms and deactivates the objects and assemblages of objects it encounters constituting a geography of success and failure that reshuffles life chances by devaluing organic and experiential knowledge production for the sterility of certified facts.