Assessment Opinion

Tests, Taylorism, and Frauds

By Diane Ravitch — February 19, 2008 3 min read

Dear Debbie,

The reason that I directed your attention to the AIR study was that it included only the dozen nations that participated in both TIMSS and PISA. Otherwise, it is confusing to refer to the U.S.'s standing in these assessments because many nations participated only once. When several less-developed nations join in the assessments, our scores look better and better. Should we really congratulate ourselves because we got higher scores on TIMSS than Cyprus, Yemen, Botswana, and Iran? These countries were not included in the AIR study, nor was the “one district of China” to which you refer, because they did not participate in both assessments.

I agree with you about the rise of Taylorism. Frederick Taylor was the best-known proponent of scientific management and efficiency in the early part of the 20th Century, and he had a wide impact on American society, and certainly on American education. The best book on the subject, in my view, is Raymond Callahan’s “Education and the Cult of Efficiency,” which was published in the early 1960s. Taylor emphasized that there was a best way to do everything and that the determination of the “best way” should be taken away from workers and put into the hands of the managers. As you acknowledge, Taylorism was thought of in its time as progressive, because it was supposedly “modern” and “scientific.” And certainly anything that was scientific was considered to be a great advance over traditional methods.

I tried to show in my book “Left Back” that John Dewey’s ideas resonated more with affluent school districts and elite private schools than regular public schools, while Taylor’s ideas had a profound impact on the public schools that most children attended. In addition, the I.Q. testing movement that burgeoned after the First World War was embraced in virtually all schools, even by leaders of the progressive education movement because it too was considered “scientific” and was promoted by the top pedagogical experts of the time (such as Edward Thorndike of Teachers College).

We don’t seem to be able to escape our history, so it seems awfully important to study it, to know which coils have wrapped themselves around our brains, which ideas undergird our assumptions.

The present small school movement has become a vehicle for some of the pernicious ideas that we thought our society had long ago discarded. Under the rubric of choice, children are sorting themselves (and being sorted) into different silos. A strange sort of vocationalism is emerging: I just read about a new high school that will open soon in Brooklyn called the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media. How strange is it that children of 14 and 15 are supposed to decide on a career in advertising? How likely is it that any of them will actually engage in such a career? Yet, we have countless examples of small schools geared towards a specific job title like this one.

As it happens, I received several emails today from academics explaining that many of the new small high schools are deeply committed to “credit recovery.” That is, the students don’t actually attend classes, but they do “projects” outside schools that are not monitored by teachers and they receive credits toward graduation. This is social promotion, intended to speed kids toward graduation, to burnish the school’s reputation, and to boost the city’s 50 percent graduation rate. A teacher said, “They have to do this, they have to move the kids out regardless of their performance or they would have very little room to admit new students.” As a colleague wrote, in reference to the new small high schools: “Everyone is doing it; social promotion is rampant.”

There are all sorts of fraud being perpetrated on the public, but worse, on the students. Does anyone care?


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