On Education, pt. 2 - Measurements and the System

Submitted by CSRD on January 10, 2018 - 1:42pm

This blog post was written by Dr. Christopher Burrell and comes from the contextual narrative of the State of Black Arizona 2017 Education Data Report. Materials from this report were excerpted for the keynote address of the 6th annual Multicultural Education Conference at Mesa Community College.


We can measure the success of any given system both directly and indirectly. The direct way is to compare and contrast that system against some objective standard. Similarly, if one opts out of one school in favor of another school, then we can infer, indirectly, that this person believes that the newer school is better.

When the American education system is measured against, say Finland, which is among the world’s top school systems, the response has typically been to point to the socio-economic (SE) and ethnic diversity of our students being educated in low SE schools. “But we educate so many different KINDS of people,” they say. “Our students have such rich and diverse backgrounds that no other system compares to ours,” they proudly proclaim. In effect, however, the claim amounts to identifying racial disparities and the inferiority of minorities: where there is racial or ethnic heterogeneity, then facilities provided to each race can be equal for their populations.

And then they send their kids to rich white schools.

All this is to say something about the rhetoric of the “broken” education system: the system is not broken, it’s fine; it’s the rhetoric that’s flawed and unproductive. The system functions optimally for those who can afford to pay for optimum functioning. For the rest of us, it functions well enough for us to be employable.

This is the heart of Plessy v Ferguson.


The education system is not broken. The majority of people going through public education systems are learning their three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. They get degrees, jobs, spouses, and homes. They learn that Shakespeare was a demigod, that math is for geniuses, and that scientists are oracles. It is, in fact, working optimally and doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The only problem is what it is that the system is designed to do. 

Consider the history of the modern grading system: A, B, C, D, F. Education systems before 1792 were apprenticeships. There was the master teacher who devoted individual attention to the needs and styles of learning of each apprentice, whether in the barrel-making down the street or in the Theology department at Oxford. There was daily participation in the student’s development. Inspired by the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the efficiency with which factory lines could sort and discard shoes to determine if they were “up to grade” and whether the workers should be paid if the shoes could be sold, schools began paying teachers based on the number of students they had, as opposed to a flat salary. A tutor at Cambridge University named William Farish understood this to mean that there is an inherent limit to how much money he could earn under the apprenticeship model. Tom Hartmann in The World’s Most Famous Lazy Teacher writes of Farish that the grading method increased his salary, lessened his workload, and reduced the hours he needed to spend in the classroom trying to discern whether his students understood a topic. This grading system could work for 200 students just as well as for 20.

The students who learned differently and failed to mesh with Farish’s lecture-form of teaching could be discarded. Again, Hartmann writes, “Without grades, the assembly-line-classroom would not be possible. With grades, whole categories of children were discovered who didn’t fit onto the conveyer belt, providing an entirely new realm of employment for adults who would diagnose, treat, and remediate these newly-discovered “learning disabled” children.” Enter the Factory Model of Education.

Rena Upitis, former Dean of Education at Queen’s University at Kingston in Ontario, Canada states in Tackling the Crime of School Design (excerpted here) “…schools have been built for young people to be trained to fulfill the roles society intends of them. In this ideology, education is seen as most effective when it is efficient and organized, preparing young people for the bureaucracy of work.” We can see the factory model in classroom design (all desks facing the front, minimal student interaction, silence and good behavior are prized, everyone learning the same materials at the same time in the same way at the same pace and measured by the same standard). David Brooks, quoting Shimon Waronker, head of the New American Academy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, says, “The American education model was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers.”

The system is designed to sort the teachable from the unteachable, the employable from the unemployable, the malleable and docile from the rigid and opinionated. The system is designed to discard the rambunctious, headstrong, disobedient “misfits.” In a world of invisible, institutional racism, that means that the system was designed to sort and discard, to suspend and expel undesirable black and brown kids; to silence their non-standard, disrespectful, and offensive ways of speaking, like Ben Fields who body-slammed and arrested a 16-year old Black girl at school in South Carolina; to vilify them for the creative ways of expressing themselves in their too loud, misogynistic, violent music, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of using rap lyrics as evidence against defendants in criminal cases; to send girls like Mariah Havard, of Buckeye Union High School in Phoenix, to the principal’s office when her Black Lives Matter t-shirt is inappropriate for a school setting because it was disruptive to the school’s educational environment. Why would people in the education system be so interested in Farish-style grading systems if not for the easy discarding of the undesirables, who amount to the black and brown kids about whom they couldn’t care less?


Add new comment