The Real Paradox in Education

The Real Paradox in Education: The Business Model and High-Stakes Testing as a System for

Dividing an Underclass and Dismantling Public Education.

Daniel Uebbing

Professor Courtney Hanny

ED 404 / Teaching, Curriculum & Change

December 8th, 2011

Margaret Warner School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester


Amid the lasting effects of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, passed in January of 2002, public schools have been held accountable to maintain adequate yearly progress via high-stakes standardized testing in grades three through eight.  Those schools that have not been able to meet a progress rate set by the state were deemed ‘failing’ and consequently sanctions were placed on the schools to include funding, dismissal of teachers and administrators and the closing of the schools.

Since the passing of this law, schools have been failing across the country.  Restructuring failed public schools to charters became a popular endeavor as seen in Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 (Hursh, 2008).  Educators also claimed that NCLB took away from teaching and learning by forcing teach-to-the-test skills-based methods and devaluing the teaching profession (Hursh, 2008).  Ultimately, the high-stakes testing mandated by NCLB has placed a cumbersome bureaucratic harness on the public sphere, forcing neoliberal proponents to continue to privatize public schools.  Hursh (2008) concluded that educators need to rather reinvigorate the public sphere by making it more socially democratic for the collective good instead of competitively divisive, (as in charter schools) and tailored for consumers of a certain class, thus perpetuating the inequality gap within the U.S.

Moreover, many Americans have lost faith in public schools.  While underfunded problematic inner city schools often produce an underclass of uneducated laborers, young mothers, drug addicts or prisoners, many have turned to a new form of choice of schooling over public education (Asher, Fruchter & Berne, 1996).  Thus, Ascher, Fruchter and Berne (1996) explicated the growing trend towards a new neoliberal mode in public education as,

a decline in support for varied rewarding public sphere means that, with fewer avenues for joining with others in shared purpose, people turn inward and are more critical and suspicious of the commonwealth.  With little sense of the richness of public life, many see the benefits of a democracy narrowly: as the freedom to pursue their own private interests.  The idea that any society must negotiate between individual and collective needs has become anathema to some and meaningless to many. (Ascher, Fruchter & Berne, 1996, p. 4)

Given this societal shift towards a new individualized view of democracy and its effects in educational policy, it is also important to note that NCLB dampens student achievement.  High-stakes testing imposes pressure on teachers, students and administrators to teach to the test which details an emphasis on discrete skills, particularly reading and math as NCLB “requires school districts to bring all students to the ‘proficient’ level in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014” (Krieg, p.656).  The low-stakes subjects of science and history are given less time and emphasis in education as a result of such teach to the test pressures.  Thus, what is really being sacrificed is critical thinking skills as students are forced to value more objective skills such as math and reading.

High-stakes testing then purports for a state-induced division never before seen so clearly in education: for the common, popular answer for those students who cannot pass the tests is to start a charter school.  Hence, charter schools are popping up all over the country.  Many have claimed that the autonomy from the state regulations that charter schools enjoy is the reason for some successful charter schools (Smith, 2007).  Superintendents are relieved when their adequate yearly progress report increases substantially after siphoning off all the test-failing students to charter schools (Smith, 2007).  Such charter schools have also been reported to share a localized community of students of similar ethnic and socio-cultural backgrounds.  Secondly, charter schools can be competitive and exclusive (Wells, 2002).  Thirdly, reports show that increasingly, minority students are the ones not able to pass the tests and are often siphoned off from public schools to charter schools (Seaton, et al., 2007).

This paper will explore the effects of high-stakes testing on public education arguing that it systemically acts as a vehicle for political coercion to privatization.  Moreover, competitive for-profit charter schools, promoting a business-model approach to education where decisions are made based on a bias for assumed ‘objective’ results and business-like accountability via high-stakes testing are not solutions to the problem of education but rather serve to widen the inequality gap of funds, resources and opportunities in the U.S.  Thereby, there is an inherent political agenda in high-stakes testing: to promote the privatization of education for for-profit, competitive and exclusive schools, to siphon off minorities from the majority of middle-class white students, creating an underclass of laborers within society, and to ultimately dismantle public education as we know it.  Finally, this paper will suggest that the real paradox in education is that there is no true safe place for students to go to study, learn and grow democratically for their own interests without being forced, via high-stakes testing, into a system that divides and disowns them, or to put it ironically, leaves them behind.


In order to fully examine and critique the effect of high-stakes standardized testing it is prudent to complicate foremost the notion of standardization in education.  Standardization claimed its roots affirmatively in David Snedden’s (1927) article, “Education for a world of team-players and team-workers.”  Snedden began his article by claiming: “The most formidable current problem of educational science is this: How far should we educate people to be alike, and how far dare we educate them to be different from each other?” (Snedden, 1927, p. 552).  This question is still relevant today.  Snedden (1927) further asserted that

No same person doubts the desirability of using education, and especially public school education, as a means of producing various uniformities of habits, of ideals, of knowledge possessed, of tastes become established.

But many of us can well entertain grave doubts as to whether it is not a chronic tendency of educational mechanisms to proceed too far in this direction.  It is so easy to administer mass school education – the only economical kind – towards uniform ends, by uniform methods, and through uniform standards (p. 552).

Here Snedden (1927) illuminated the need for standardization as the only “economical kind.”  Hence, in comparison to today, one can see how issuing standardized tests is desirable for its easiness and economic logic in dealing with the masses.  Thus, standardization appeared logical and democratic in the sense that it was the same test for everybody; however, Snedden (1927) warned educators of such democratic equalization:

And, again at the present juncture, they are aided by the aspirations for more ‘democratic’ education.  Efforts for more and better democracy have, of course, always entailed ‘leveling down’ practices counterpart to their ‘uplifting’ efforts.  ‘Equalization’ fills the hollows, but often by degrading the peaks. (p. 552)

Thus, by aligning standardization with equalization, Snedden (1927) outlined the common notions of democratic education.  Snedden’s (1927) final metaphor, however, indicated a warning to educators: that if education were too democratic in its efforts to educate the masses then the great academic heights of certain subjects will inevitably have to be ‘leveled down’ in order to standardize the content across the scope of human variability (Snedden, 1927).  In other words, academic enthusiasts will have to differentiate their instruction so it applies equally to the masses despite intellectual potentiality.  Snedden (1927) concluded that certain individuals should be tracked based on their intellectual potentialities.  In sum, Snedden (1927) advocated to divide the classes based on their natural intelligences.  I argue that in the guise of standardization, which often connotes fairness, equalization and democracy, educators today are designedly dividing the classes, not based on human variability, but based on the narrow ideological scope of high-stakes testing and its emphasis on discrete skills over critical thinking.

Moreover, these tests do not value the varied socio-cultural backgrounds and learning styles of an increasingly diverse population of learners.  To this regard, Snedden (1927) was accurate in his critique of standardization and how it cannot fully compensate for the educational needs across human variability.  In short, some students are naturally inclined for vocational school or to join the work force rather than pursue higher education.

Thus, through equating standardization with equalization and democracy Snedden (1927) advocated to rethink standardization in light of human variability.  Therefore, tracking students for their intelligences makes sense, economically.  But then what happens to a true social democracy in education, whereby learners of human variability can have the same opportunities?  In today’s age, a true democratic education, should not rationalize democracy based on standardized tests, but should allow students to learn and be assessed based on their differentiated needs or human variability.  This however, is obviously not a preferred economical option for educators and policy-makers as the proceeding sections will detail.


As former President George W. Bush once quipped, “Trade is freedom.”  This motto largely reflected the growing neoliberal movement since the 1980s to deregulate and privatize the welfare state that was once so foundational to American life after The New Deal.  This political backlash from the liberalism of the civil rights era to the neo-liberalism of the 80s inspired by the fear-mongering of the publication of A Nation at Risk* gained even more speed after 9/11 when Americans were told to keep American running by consuming, (Wells, 2002) buying Cadillacs as a mode of practicing democracy through consumption, for instance.  This capitalist culture underscores the neoliberal movement.

Ironically, during the first half of the 19th century, “white southern democrats, struggling to maintain the institution of slavery, defined ‘freedom’ within a democratic society as opposition to government intervention or regulation” (Foner, 1998 as cited in Wells, 2002, p. 341).  This coercive neoliberal argument is still used, although obviously less overtly, to protect the institution of slavery in the name of democracy by dividing localized communities where resources and funds are allocated largely towards homogenized white middle class suburban enclaves, thereby segregating historically underserved minorities either to remain in the urban public schools or start a charter of their own.

One counter argument to this is that “groups of parents, students, educators, and community activists in low-income communities of color are using charter school reform to gain freedom from state-mandated curricula in order to embrace their own cultural heritage” (Wells et al., 1999, p. 175).  Neoliberal advocates of charter schools, however, will never admit to setting up divisive, competitive schools which ultimately create localized hegemonic community schools that value a certain predominately white and middle class cultural heritage and identity in nonurban districts (Wells, 2002).  The fact is, if one is to see clearly beyond the political rhetoric of charter school reform, which advocates ultimately for autonomy from the commonly portrayed “unwieldy public education bureaucracies” (Chubb & Moe, 1990, as cited in Wells,

** See Diane Ravitch’s (2001) The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.2002), resources were allocated to a certain brand of clientele.  Administrators and school board officials based on Wells (1998) study of charter schools in California were particularly steeped in neoliberal ideology in that “they stood to make some money for their districts” (Wells, 2002).  This all seemed well and good as nonresident students were enrolled at the benefit of “administrative services” at “3,000 dollars” a student in vouchers – funds directly stripped from the public sphere to the discretion of the administrators (Wells, 2002).  However, parental contracts in particular made charter schools particularly exclusive to certain districts:

…extra funding has allowed them (administrators) to buy computers and equipment for the other schools in their districts.  This is no doubt, good for the schools and students in these small, homogeneous, and relatively privileged school districts.  But it was often more problematic for neighboring districts, which were not always wealthy or predominately White.  And when the charter schools required contracts making parent involvement mandatory for students admitted to the schools—not an unusual practice—it raised other issues as well, about which schools serving which students have access to which resources. (see UCLA Charter School Study, 1998, in Wells, 2002)

In light of this study, one can see how neoliberal ideology is often championed only for certain privileged predominately white middle class groups, as it was “much more prevalent in the relatively wealthy suburbs than it was in the poorer and much more diverse and contested urban school districts” (Wells, 2002).  Ultimately, when the social democracy of public education is contracted out to the private sector of market-based or capitalist democracy, the funds and the resources will always go to the highest bidder, or typically those with the most homogenized cultural capital.  To this extend, especially considering the nonurban ideal charter school which accepts for-profit private curriculum and non-certified teachers, charter schools are a vehicle for ‘white flight,’ and direct division of the classes via division of funds and resources to set up more autonomous, well-funded suburban charter schools in California.

Furthermore, Ascher, Fruchter and Berne (1996) discovered that privatization further cut costs on school services, as schools would be exempt from costly rules.  For example, “private schools joining the voucher program were exempted from the costly rules governing the education of disabled students in public schools” (Ascher, Fruchter and Berne, 1996, p.111).  The result was students with disabilities mainstreamed into more crowded classrooms and educators exempt from following students Individualized Education Programs (Ascher, Fruchter and Berne, 1996).  Thus by economizing education, or viewing it as a business wherein it is profitable to gain exemption from government regulation, students with diverse needs are directly affected.  Clearly, the neoliberals favor a certain brand of customer for their schools as “schooling ceases to be a part of the public sphere; no longer a public service, it becomes a consumable item” (Ascher, Fruchter and Berne, 1996).

Thus, in our very postmodern age, where new enclaves of localized communities are popping up all over the country in the form of private and charter schools autonomous from state regulations there is a certain “moving mosaic” which is very difficult to keep track of in terms of equality.  Decidedly, liberty is winning out over the American value of equality in our postmodern, post-industrialist, globalized, late capitalist and arguably post-democratic age.  To this regard, when education as a public institution for all crumbles to such neoliberal reform there are “potential consequences for greater economic inequality and commodification of culture” (Wells, 1999, p. 81).  “So too does charter school reform threaten to reorganize the public system in ways that further exacerbate differential access to material resources (Wells et al., 1999, p.81).  Thus the schools with the most valued cultural capital will competitively win out and gain material resources over minorities and other heterogeneous cultures and identities.  To this point, school choice can create a certain ‘monopoly’ of white-middle class enclaves.  In this business-model of education, choice creates competition, inevitable inequality and political coercion towards privatization as “strong and effective schools will win out, and weak schools will be forced to change or close their doors” (Ascher, Fruchter and Berne, 1996, p.7).  This is the result of a market-based, business framed educational reform.  When students and their families are strategically marketed to, they turn from students in a democracy to consumers in a warped form of democracy where money is the bottom line.  Thus, those who already have money (the status quo of middle to upper class whites) will be most served with resources and funds.  Apple (1996) wrote that such reform does little to espouse “heterogeneity, pluralism and the local” (p.xi, cited in Wells, 2002, p. 81).  Ultimately, Hargreaves (1994) who defined the postmodern paradox as “the complexity and uncertainty wrought by globalization” leading to “fragmented and decentered localized projects” (as cited in Wells, 2002, p. 174) found that this trend toward privatization led to more inequality, stipulating that charter school reform in particular is more likely to establish “enclaves of experimentation (especially in more protected middle class communities) than to generate and sustain larger waves of system-wide change” (p.33 as cited in Wells, 2002, p.183).

NCLB: Converting failing schools to charters.

Nelson Smith (2007), president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, advocated for NCLB’s number one stated option for restructuring schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP):

The restructuring provisions in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are a Rorschach test for charter supporters.  To the Market Optimists, the six brief paragraphs of NCLB Section 116 look like the greatest growth opportunity ever.  ‘Reopening the school as a public charter school’ is Option # 1 on the list of NCLB’s restructuring alternatives.  (p.57)

Smith (2007) further anecdotally quibbled on the worthiness and common sense of this alternative:

Think about it: You’re a superintendent with some pretty good schools and a dozen lousy ones.  Invoke NCLB, charter them out, and in one fell swoop you have moved the bottom feeders from the district column to the charter column.  Your district scores skyrocket, and all those that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)…well, you know, they’re all charter schools (p.57)

Thus, NCLB champions the neoliberal privatization of education.  The bill forces testing and demands results and in turn slaps sanctions on failing public schools all over the country.  Smith (2007) does point out that Option # 5 in the letter of the NCLB bill does in fact grant schools some autonomy as it allows for, “any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms” (p.57).  This freedom is far too little, however, and does not allow states to make curriculum reforms, or practice innovative “unshackled” sorts of teaching models that charter schools often practice (Smith, 2007).  Therein, a vexing paradox strikes this reviewer: for neoliberal charter school advocates point to charters for the answer as these schools are allowed to practice more autonomous innovative curriculum and teaching models, whereas public schools must teach-to-the-test in order to make AYP to avoid school failure.  Charter schools are held accountable for their stated missions but at least they have the freedom to make their own goals and curriculum, whereas the only restructuring option for failing public schools is to either fire the administrators and staff or convert to a charter school.  There is no state alternative for teaching or curriculum change recommended by NCLB in the restructuring process after the state has deemed a school, ‘failing.’  Rather, the public schools are strangled out via high-stakes testing to convert to charter schools, which as shown earlier, can be divisive, exclusive and based largely for-profit for administrators and a predominately white middle to upper middle class group of students.

Furthermore, this process of testing administers docile, normalized subjects (Foucault, 2001).  Thus, power relations are at the heart of this issue, as Foucault’s historical argument asserts that “power operates through continual classification, surveillance, and intervention” (Leitch, 2001, p. 1618).  Moreover, “the teacher and students are located (though differently) within the institution, and both go through their paces within a network that guides and oversees their conduct” (p.1618).  Therefore, this notion of accountability in the business model, as well as the idea of standardization as it is administered to the masses via testing, inheres in larger power relations, which normalize and divide the masses in order to reinforce the status quo and protect the ruling class.  Education after all is an institution of this state.

This Writer’s Stand:

While this writer recognizes the inherent contradictory nature of a public education system straddled with testing whereas charters enjoy much more autonomy, this writer is fairly confident that altogether riddance of high-stakes testing will not be realized under the current president, most likely.  Despite the fact that “over the 8 years since the 2002 reauthorization, states had criticized NCLB as unwieldy and accused it of failing to recognize legitimate differences across the 50 states in policy, politics, culture and in school practice,” (Berry & Herrington, 2011), Obama’s initial report on education still included “an accountability system that holds states and districts to rigorous standards and requires targeted interventions for persistently low-performing school” (p.272).  This system of high-stakes standardized testing does not value students’ diverse socio-cultural backgrounds but tests them against norm-referenced standards.  This writer asks, what is the norm that is consistently being referenced and why is it repeatedly so unreflective of African Americans, Latinos, English language learners and other ethnic minorities and heterogeneous cultural identities?

Although, NCLB “required that the acceptable performance be defined for all student groups as well as subgroups of students such as ethnic racial, or linguistic minorities, to ensure that calculations of average performance would not mask low performance of any particular subgroup” (Berry & Herrington, 2011) the bill does not attempt to detail in the slightest and kinds of alternative assessment across a diverse group of learners.  The state rather intervenes and divides the masses.

Moreover, as hinted at previously, “this system places pressure on school administrators to redirect educational resources from groups of students likely to demonstrate proficiency towards those who are marginally below proficient” (Krieg, 2011, p. 556).  Thus, based on Krieg’s (2011) empirical study, Snedden (1927) was dead on in his metaphor of leveling down education in the name of standardization.  Important to note then, that in this empirical study, “given the limits of school resources, this redirection of resources towards one racial group causes a diminution in academic performance of students in successful racial groups” (Krieg, 2011, p. 663).

Specifically, NCLB mandated that each school (in Krieg’s (2011) study) “test five distinct racial groups and three categories of students: Black, Hispanic, White, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, low-income, bilingual and special education” (p.654).  This very heterogeneous group must meet the AYP set by the state or else their school with face sanctions.  Therefore, there are direct economical and professional incentives for administrators in particular to redirect “resources away from groups projected to make AYP and target those resources towards members of groups thought to be in danger of not making AYP” (Krieg, 2011, p. 655).  Thus state-mandated pressures to make AYP coerces administrators to adjust curriculum and resources to often their lowest performing group “in hopes of raising their academic performance, or teachers may divert attention from low-stakes subjects to high-stakes subjects” (Winters, Trivitt, & Green, 2010 as cited in Krieg, 2011, p. 655).  The end result is that higher order critical thinking in the content areas of science, social studies, for example, as well as the electives of music and art for instance, are devalued in the name of test-taking skills, basic decoding skills in reading and writing skills.  The state’s intervention in testing altogether “inadvertently provides incentives to reduce academic achievement for some groups of students” (Krieg, 2011).  In light of all this, this writer advocates for eradication of NCLB and rejuvenation of public education by fairly allocating resources for equity, or the collective good of the people, rather than for profit.

Suggestions for change:

Seeing as how the neoliberal movement towards charter schools and the dismantling of public education is largely about privileging a certain predominantly white middle class, or about separating the failers and minorities, as one study showed that “the clustering of minorities in charter schools serve to further isolate and already socially, economically, racially isolated population (Seaton et al., 2007, p. 164), this writer advocates for more autonomy for the public school administrators and teachers.  This realistically can only be achieved by eradicating NCLB.  As Warner School Professor Joanne Larson once told this writer, “We needn’t rethink the business model of education; rather we must undo it altogether” (Larson, in conversation, 2001).  However, for the current state of education in the reality of NCLB, I would like to advocate to teachers for more contextually-relevant classrooms and curricula, which do not bank on teaching to the test but rather to the varied students before them.  For, the instigation of power relations happens in the classroom between student and teacher.  Therefore, educators must be aware of alternative pedagogical models such as a community of learners (Rogoff, 1996) which advocates for affinity spaces and multiple versions of literacy.  This writer, moreover, is particularly interested in Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (Spencer, 2006), “as a model for understanding and conceptualizing how teachers and students dynamically serve as each other’s contexts for development” (in Seaton, et al., 2007, p. 173).  Thus, critical pedagogy in general, which accounts for students socio-cultural backgrounds and subjective lived experiences and learning styles are imperative.  Individuals’ respectful and student-centered interactions with each other between varied socio-cultural contexts are ultimately what must be inspired in the classroom.  Clearly, this writer is also an advocate for Vygotskian theory in that all learning is a social practice (Vygotsky, 1978).

High-stakes standardized testing forces normalization, standardization, and objectification across a diverse population.  In search of a metaphor, it is similarly to trying to square a circle.  The results will never line up across the public and therefore neoliberals will point to the public sector and declare that privatization is the way to go.  This is an unfair process of finger-pointing in the name of a forced accountability while charter schools enjoy a private sector freedom in the sense of greater autonomy.  Yet, a certain focus for charter schools to enroll clusters of minorities or separated middle class suburban schools, takes resources from the public to the private sector and sends them surely go to the schools with the most cultural capital, the most propensity to meet its goals the way they want and to pass the norm-referenced tests.  Thus, funds of knowledge are normalized and perpetuated vis-à-vis power relations.

In this vein, “neoliberals aim to reduce the cost of schooling by increasing efficiency through competitive markets and privatization, and by quantifying progress through standardized test scores, therefore marginalizing the knowledge of students, teachers, and the community” (Hursh, 2008).  Moreover, in “the last two decades of neoliberal dominance has led to increase economic and educational inequality, both nationally and globally” (Hursh, 2008).  However, neoliberals do not consider that if public schools are dismantled, and teachers unions become obsolete, there will be very little job security for teachers and schools will be competitive, for-profit, culturally commodified and exclusive.  Why not unburden public education from NCLB and improve it as a place of socially democratic, innovative learning?  Such methods of culturally-relevant assessment and interactive group activities can be taken advantage of with a more autonomous public sector free of testing pressures.  In light of this, Hursh (2008) and Anyon (2006) have called for a “new social movement in which educators work with others to combat not only the rise of high-stakes testing, accountability, markets, and privatization in education, but also the rise of markets and privatization in all of our social policies” (Hursh, 2008, p. 143).  For example, why is America the only developed nation not to have universal healthcare?  Why are neoliberals trying to strip social security benefits from senior citizens?  There is a constant war between the business model and the social model in all aspects of governance, but this writer, while appreciating business and innovation, advocates that a strong public sector, specifically in education, that values a diverse group of students instead of failing them with forced de-contextualized testing is really what is needed.


In conclusion, the neoliberal erosion of public education leaves students with no place to go to learn in a social model, only a business model in charter schools and public schools.  Thus, the intervention of the state into public education with high-stakes testing acts as the coercion necessary to privatize education as a mode of institutional racism, siphoning off the failures and allocating funds of knowledge that fetishize a certain white middle class norm to the typical suburban, well-funded charters.  Hence a system of division and moreover a system of leveling down education by taking away critical time and resources from subject areas and higher order critical thinking churns charter school proponents’ market-based wheels in this age of rampant neo-liberalism, concerned only with the context of profit to the benefit of a select few and a normalized group of students, and the alienation of the others.


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