Higher Education

Making a Student-Cyborg

Or perhaps a better title for this post–"Education as Poverty’s Pharmakon."

In the NY Times Magazine this Sunday, Paul Tough’s article "What it Takes to Make a Student" reviews the progress of NCLB and a some particularly sucessful charter schools. It is a provocative, interesting read that leaves me with one clear observation:

  • Schools with dedicated administrators, teachers, students, and parents have a chance to be more successful on test than other schools in their economic class.

This I think is the lesson of charter schools. Yes, perhaps the experimental method attached to a particular school makes some difference, but the real differences seem to be the following, as noted in Tough’s article. Tough focuses on KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools where students spend 60% more time in school than in average public schools and teachers work 15-16 hours per day and give students their cell phone numbers (so that they can be reached in the evening for help on their homework). Students get into all charter schools by applying and getting picked in a lottery process; the students who attend are generally low-performing as compared to standards but often better performing than other students at their previous school districts.

In short, these schools are filled with people who have demonstrated a dedication to education beyond that of their average peers. It’s not surprising they get better results.

Schools have always been about "shaping" students. Tough’s article displays charter schools taking this cybernetics of subjectivity to an extreme. Citing research about the effects of attitude on learning, there is a explicit effort to shape attitude at the school from propaganda-like sloganeering and posters to the regimentation of body movements, including some synchronized nodding that might strike one as a scene out of a Pink Floyd movie. This cybernetics appears to extend to the teachers as well, who appear to labor under an intense panoptic system without any of the protections usually afforded them by their unions.

Still, all that will work fine when it’s a volunteer system and everybody’s drinking the Kool-Aid. However, I’ll be damned if I’d send my kids to be rats in somebody’s social experiment for the better part of their childhood just so that they maybe do better on some test and that might mean they get into a better college and get a better job. Of course I’m not living in poverty with kids struggling to keep afloat in school. I understand why parents might make the choice to send their kids to charter schools. I just don’t think it’s a system that could ever work unilaterally, even in low-performing/poor school districts.

What we don’t know, b/c these schools are new phenomena, is whether improved test scores will mean success in college and better jobs for their students. And this is the real kicker. Education has long been held up as a great social equalizer, as a route out of poverty. Clearly that seems to work on an individual basis (but then again, lots of things work on an individual basis: sports or artistic prowess, winning the lottery, etc.). Let’s face it, we aren’t educating students just so that they can be educated, so that they can solve quadratic equations and quote Shakespeare while hanging out jobless in the projects. We want these students to get good paying jobs. But tell me how that’s going to happen?

Let’s say, by some miracle, that the goal of NCLB came to pass and by 2014 not only would the performance of students be indistinguishable by race or class, every student would meet the standard. Gee, that would be great, huh? Now we’ve got all these HS graduates with baseline educations. But if we want them to get decent jobs those baseline educations will hardly suffice. We’ll need to send them to technical, trade, and community colleges, if not on to four-year colleges and beyond. These grads will be competing, as we know, in a global marketplace–or they will be in location-specific careers.  Either way, job competition will be fierce. Just because we have a more highly-educated workforce, it doesn’t mean that we will have a need for them, especially when we can draw on a global reserve of employees.

Now the counter-argument I’ve seen to this is that we might look at our educated workforce in the context of the opening of global markets. So even though millions of Chinese and Indians will be competing for our jobs, we will now have access to hundreds of millions of new consumers in India and China. The only thing is that I’ve heard this same argument about higher education, that we can attract all these foreign students. The problem is… how many of these students can afford to pay for a US education? I have no doubt that the opening of these markets will make some people in the US very rich and that they will provide opportunitites for many talented Americans, but are they going to provide enough money to cure the problems of poverty in America by providing a newly educated class of Americans with good-paying jobs? I don’t think so.

When it comes down to it, we’ve already got a lion’s share of global wealth. We are already expend the lion’s share of the world’s resources. A market economy is always going to be bent on getting more; I get that. But that’s not how we are going to solve our problems. Neither are we going to solve our problems through education.

To take on an old phrase, "you can teach a man to fish, but if you want him to eat fish you have to stock the pond with fish." Knowledge isn’t enough; you need material resources.

If you want to improve educational performance in our country that’s great. I say you start by creating stable homes. If you have single-mothers who aren’t working two jobs to live in unhealthy conditions with the threat of one illness destroying what little security they have then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have households where education can become more of a priority.

If you look at nations that do a better job than us at educating all their students, I assure you that you’ll find there is not such a great disparity between the wealthy and the poor as there is in the US. I’m also confident you’ll find a stronger social safety net. This would include Western nations like Finland, Iceland, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Ireland, and the Netherlands and Asian nations like Japan, China, and Korea.  Not all of these are nations we would want to emulate culturally, despite their performance on school tests (just as we would likely not want to emulate the cultural of charter schools despite their test successes). However maybe we have something to learn from them.


2 replies on “Making a Student-Cyborg”

Alex, I agree w/your description of the charter phenomena Tough describes. And I share your skepticism and some of your revulsion for the programming aspects of the pedagogy being touted as redemptive.
But I think you underestimate the dysfunction in some urban public schools among students and faculty. How do we reverse the 50% drop out rates in these schools? How do we succeed in getting kids who have repeatedly failed (and the schools have failed them to be sure) to read and write and compute at levels that will allow them access?
The attitude research Tough cites is esp. important. I see apathy, resistance, indifference, hostility, disrespect, self-hatred, helplessness in the faces and behaviors of many of the students I see in my observations. It seems that at least these charters (and I’m not an advocate of charters period) are attempting to build more positive attitudes in the hopes that their students will respect themselves, their classmates, their teachers and their schools. If they are successful in that alone, their students will be better prepared for the demands of the flat world.
I know we can look to other countries whose students are performing at levels far above the U.S. One issue though is that the populations in many of these countries is more homogeneous and family structures more stable. Both of these factors would support higher achievement levels.
I also believe that expectations are vastly different.
We ask so little of students even in our most affluent districts.
We mete out bits of knowledge — assign a book here or there that kids read or don’t — it doesn’t add up to much when compared with other countries’ more rigorous curricula.
As for writing, well, that’s a topic to take up for another comment/blog post.


Karen you make a good point that these other countries are quite different from our own in a variety of cultural ways. I think part of the point there though is that the problem we pretend we can fix through education (social inequity) can’t really be fixed through education.
That said, I agree we need to make changes in our educational practices.
The issue of “attitude” is an interesting one, particularly in the context of “rigor.” I’m reminded of that country-western tune where someone is handing out an “attitude adjustment” (obviously an application of physical discipline).
The danger of focusing on attitude is the presumption that these _______ are just lazy, right? If “they” had a better attitude then etc. etc. Of course it’s more complex than that. I’m also reminded of a Cornell West essay I used to teach on “black nihilism” as he termed it.
For me, coming from Deleuze, I’ve always been curious about pedagogy as the management of affects and generally about affective cybernetics as the root of a “control society” as Deleuze called his extension of Foucault’s panoptic-disciplinary society.
So when I hear schools talking about “attitude” or positive psychology or teaching the “whole student,” I am suspicious. I know I would be DAMN suspicious if I were a student in that context (get your filthy pedagogy off me!).
I can’t say that if one is poor, particularly if one is poor and not white, in this country that there is anything wrong with one’s “attitude” if one mistrusts and disrepects the state and its official culture, including the “sentimental laborers” with their offers of “help.” On the other hand, it may not be the most strategic act to refuse to make an effort to succeed in school or to buy into the official culture (or at least act as if one does).
So perhaps the attitude adjustment here is to recognize that as abhorrent as the micropolitical management of affect and attitude may be, straightforward resistance may not be a strong tactic either. However for those who are marginalized, despite the ideological narrative of education as empowerment, I can’t imagine educational institutions as ever being anything except another force reifying one’s marginalization.


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