Exacerbating Inequality: Public Schooling in the Era of Neoliberal Standardization
Date of Degree
Education | Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research | Elementary Education
Comparative, Elementary School, Social Class, Standardization
This work is inspired by Jean Anyon’s (1981) landmark ethnographic study, “Social Class and School Knowledge” in which she detailed the differential and class-based constructions of knowledge across five elementary schools. While this research study in no way aims to be a revision of Anyon’s work, it uses her findings to set a foundational premise that curriculum and instruction often work to contribute to the reproduction of social class. Further, this research builds on these findings to examine and analyze social class reproduction in the current neoliberal policy context of standards-based reform. A key policy shift since Anyon’s research is that public school “outsiders”—policymakers, universities, and for-profit companies together are responsible for curricular and assessment design, leaving school “insiders”—the teachers—significantly absent from key decision-making processes. These reforms have re-imagined a corporate vision of public education in the name of civil rights. After spending six months researching across two schools—one high-poverty and steeped in this standardized reform framework, and the other middle-class and staunchly against it—this researcher concluded that students attending high-poverty schools were more likely to face an impoverished, narrow curriculum, in support of Anyon’s findings from over thirty years ago. Social class and educational quality continue to be bound. This illustrates the failure of standardization to meet its central promise of creating a more equitable school system. This work traces some of the co-opting of key terms in the movement for standardization—namely accountability, meritocracy, and equity, and the fallacies behind their usage in the current context of high-stakes, top-down policy. Four major findings emerged during this research. First, standardized testing is an inequitable system of assessment, which ignores the role of context—social class, language, and cultural capital in a child’s experience and the impact these have on one’s overall educational success. Second, standardized tests don’t contribute to teacher knowledge about their students. Despite their uselessness for educators, they continue to play a high-stakes role in the lives of children. Third, the imposition of standardization creates an apparatus of assessment and curriculum that is mechanical, skills-based, and often meaningless for students and teachers. This is in contrast with a school freed from standardization, where the curriculum and assessments are authentic, teacher-created, and meaningful. Last, standardization pushes a very narrow set of values in schools and in society, forcing attention away from the humanity of education. There are critical implications for teachers, students, and our democracy as a whole. Teachers are in the process of a complete de-professionalization, while students are labeled and categorized, disciplined or rewarded, based on a dangerously limited set of assumptions. A key underpinning of the standards-based reform movement is that the creation and testing of standards will increase equity, and the intention of this work is to challenge that common-sense notion. Furthermore, the language and actions behind and within this movement threaten the very fabric of our democracy. These two school contexts paint nearly opposite portraits of what we, as a society, value. In conclusion, social class remains an important determiner of the quality of education a child will receive, and therefore of the chances that one’s social class will be reproduced. Rather than mitigating inequality, standardization exacerbates it. It is dangerous to leave questions of education to policymakers and corporate interests. We must, as a community of educators with boots on the ground, determine what schools will value—and how to best demonstrate those values through our teaching and learning.
Barnhart, Johanna Panetti, "Exacerbating Inequality: Public Schooling in the Era of Neoliberal Standardization" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.